Having worked with dozens of talent acquisition teams across the globe, we can attest that this is the million-dollar question! But for many talent acquisition professionals, the answer feels elusive. The available academic research and popular press yields answers that range from extravagant perks (beer taps and ping pong tables), to a job with a higher purpose, to growth opportunities, to the always frustrating – “it depends” (on factors like generation or age).

This is an especially critical question for organizations adapting to our post-pandemic world. To gain insight into what job candidates want, we conducted a large-scale study in the U.S. during the heart of the pandemic.1

We studied eight of the most common and salient job characteristics, including:

Recognizing that job preferences are not simple enough for most people to confidently or consistently rank, we utilized conjoint analysis which is perfectly suited to uncovering peoples’ preferences in complex situations. We presented over 10,000 Americans with several pairs of hypothetical job packages and asked them to choose the job they preferred. Each pair differed slightly in its characteristics. Here’s an example of one of the packages we presented:

Job Candidates Place More Importance on the Social Aspects of Work

We analyzed the data from all of the examples we presented to determine which characteristics had the biggest impact on candidate decision making. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Immediate manager was the most important characteristic. Among the eight job characteristics we studied, the immediate manager was the most influential factor in decision making. To many, this may not be surprising given our own personal experiences with good and bad managers and the research highlighting the importance of managers in creating positive employee experiences. But this research suggests that even before people become employees, they place a high degree of importance on their future relationship with their immediate manager.
  • Immediate team was the second most important characteristic. The immediate team, which was the only other social aspect of work we studied, emerged as the second most influential factor. This is consistent with the emerging EX trend that employees look to their employers and their work for a sense of belonging
  • Results held true across age groups and genders. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that the relative importance of the manager and the immediate team held true across the various demographics we captured. While it may seem obvious that people of different generations, ages, stages in life, and career prioritize different aspects of work, our results illustrate that the social aspects of work are important to everyone.

While some of the differences among job characteristics appear small, they represent substantial differences in job candidate preferences. For example, even though the importance rating for the immediate manager is just 6 percentage points higher than workplace flexibility, a whopping 76% of people would prefer a job with the best manager and the worst workplace flexibility over a job with the best workplace flexibility and the worst manager (and all other factors remaining equal).

Overall, these findings point to the importance of highlighting the social aspects of work throughout the candidate experience. It also reminds us of the critical role that managers play in creating positive employee experiences.  


Bottom line: Humans are social and emotional – bet on the social aspects of work!

Benjamin Granger, Ph.D., XMP, is an XM Catalyst for the Qualtrics XM Institute

Craig Lutz is a Senior XM Scientist with Qualtrics, specializing in PX

  1. The data come from the Qualtrics XM Institute Q2 2020 consumer benchmark study, which surveyed a representative sample of 10,000 U.S. consumers based on quotas for gender, age, ethnicity, income, and region.
  2. We presented clear definitions of each of the 8 categories. Participants were able to revisit these definitions by hovering over the category name throughout the survey. 
  3. We included 4 levels of each job characteristic ranging from (4) the best – (3) moderately good – (2) moderately bad – (1) the worst.