The Employee Hierarchy of Needs

March 16, 2022
Checkr Editor

Understand evolving employee needs through a psychological lens.

The world of work is undergoing a massive cultural shift. This shift is a "great reassessment" as workers reevaluate their priorities and make crucial work changes to afford themselves higher pay, more flexible working conditions, and a stronger sense of belonging.

The talent drain

Burned-out workers have been quitting in record numbers for months now. Checkr and Everee’s recent 2022 State of the Worker Report found that 1 in 5 workers plan to stay at their current job for less than a year. If a job isn’t meeting their needs, employees join the group of 47.4 million Americans who voluntarily quit in 2021.

Changing workplace standards relate to both a persons’ financial and emotional needs. For that reason, we will break down the data from the 2022 State of the Worker Report through a psychological lens. More specifically, through the lens of American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Let’s dig in to define the “big shift” and outline what companies can do to attract and retain talent in this competitive hiring landscape.

The big shift: from an economy of consumption to an economy of access

This problem of unsatisfying working conditions is one that is built into our infrastructure. We have been building resource-draining companies that prioritize profit over people. We need to revisit these decisions and instead create conditions where people can thrive and enjoy the benefit of a financial and personal stake in their company.

At the heart of this inequality is the corporate mentalities of constraint and control. Constraints on employee creativity, free thinking, independence, self-sufficiency, and reasonable risk-taking. Control of how, when, and where employees work.

We want to see employers move away from constraint and control toward a more sustainable and ethical future of work. What does this mean? Access and trust. Access to work that pays a living wage, that fosters respectful and inclusive working conditions, and that rewards hard work and upstanding conduct. Trust of employees’ skills and decision-making. Trust in a system that rewards rather than punishes for openness and transparency.

Employers have the opportunity to address each of the key employee needs with core values of access and trust. So how exactly can employers understand workers’ needs and restructure their employee programs to meet those needs?

For this, we’ll look to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy describes the different human needs and how we subconsciously prioritize them. He organized these needs into a pyramid to illustrate that while we all fundamentally need every step in the pyramid, the needs at the base are the most important and will always take precedence over more advanced functioning.

The needs he identified are as follows, listed from most critical (the base of the pyramid) to least critical (the top of the pyramid):

  • Physiological needs: food, water, sleep, physical health
  • Safety needs: shelter, stability, predictability, control, agency
  • Esteem needs: the need to fit in and be accepted, the need to respect one’s self
  • Self-actualization: the need to understand, improve, and accept one’s self; the need to grow and improve

Though for simplicity’s sake, we can say that those needs are organized from most to least important, it’s worth noting that to be a happy, healthy, and well-rounded person, we must have all of these needs met. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to become self-actualized if they are perpetually in a heightened state, searching for resources to meet their most essential requirements.

As employers, though we can’t provide for all of our employees’ needs, we can address the fundamental ones with thoughtful policy choices to increase retention and employee satisfaction. By understanding employees' changing needs, we can support them on the most basic levels while creating an environment in which they can do their best work. And employees' needs can be mapped to Maslow’s hierarchy.

The employee hierarchy of needs

Let's dive into the employee hierarchy of needs and how companies can adapt to address them.

Access to work

Work is necessary to our mental well-being because it offers predictability, purpose, and security. Without access to work, people struggle to meet their most basic needs such as food, shelter, and social stability.

How can employers build infrastructure that supports access to work for all? By recognizing the normalized work practices that exclude certain individuals from meaningful work. Background checks often completely exclude anyone impacted by the justice system. This prevents many candidates from obtaining work despite their qualifications.

The 2022 State of the Worker Report found that 82% of people want a chance to explain if their background check is unclear and 17% of people have worked for an employer that declined to offer someone an opportunity due to a criminal record. 77 million Americans have a criminal record, and they, too, deserve to access work and therefore meet their own most basic needs.

Companies don’t need to do away with background checks to support access to work. Working with an advanced background check solution that offers candidates an opportunity to explain results in tandem with fair and unbiased adjudication gives those candidates agency and allows employers to fairly evaluate.

People want to find work that suits their needs, abilities, skills, and talents. This means employers need to:

  • Remove bias from hiring
  • Promote transparency in hiring
  • Build infrastructure that monitors safety
  • Invest in a future of work that includes justice-impacted individuals

Access to work often means access to meet the most basic human needs like housing and healthcare. It is imperative for companies to reconsider hiring policies and work toward offering access to this population.

But access to work alone isn’t enough to ensure that workers can meet their basic needs. Access to flexibility and autonomy is essential to employer excellence.

Access to flexibility and autonomy

Employers make demands of their employees’ time and energy, and in exchange provide a salary or wage. But these expectations aren’t always fair.

As workers have found more agency in a labor economy that favors them, they have begun to seek out jobs that offer flexibility, independence, and easy access to pay.

In the 2022 State of the Worker Report, 79% of workers surveyed report that they wish they were paid once a week instead of every two weeks. Furthermore, the report found that 68% of people are currently living paycheck to paycheck and one third of people reported having missed work due to financial issues.

In a time when companies are struggling to come up with effective employee retention strategies, employers need to analyze their compensation structure and decide:

  • Are our wages keeping up with the market average? (Keeping in mind that pay expectations have changed significantly since the great reassessment began.)
  • Have we adjusted everyone’s pay for inflation? Don’t just interrogate the wages you’re offering to new hires. Better retain your employees by offering them pay increases to compensate for the rising cost of living.
  • Can we offer more frequent or daily pay? This is easier to do than ever before with payroll solutions like Everee

These trends, which have long been gathering steam, now seem here to stay. Hybrid or fully remote work options give employees the flexibility they need to care for their own and their family’s basic needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. They also may reduce stress and expand economic opportunity.

People want to set their own hours, work on a flexible schedule, work remotely, and make work fit around their life. This means:

  • Allowing employees to work their own hours
  • Being flexible for employees with other responsibilities such as child care, elder care, or a second job
  • Deconstructing a system of paycheck to paycheck living with financial education, fair and competitive pay, and frequent/daily pay options. 

Access to work, flexibility, and autonomy on the employee hierarchy of needs relates most to Maslow’s needs of physiological safety. And similar to Maslow’s needs of love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, employees also require access to belonging in order to thrive at work.

Access to belonging

Productive work is necessary for individuals to feel healthy and well-adjusted. Satisfying work offers them a space to feel safe, needed, and appreciated. Work offers a unique sense of purpose and community, and many rely on these functions throughout their lives, especially as they may experience upheaval and stress in other areas at times.

But all workplaces are not created equal when it comes to this sense of belonging. To be authentically inclusive, work communities must be allies to the marginalized, root out discrimination and prejudice, and work to dismantle structural inequalities.

However, in the 2022 State of the Worker Report, one out of every four workers reported believing their employers are biased. 37% of white workers say their organization doesn’t have a fair hiring process, compared to 58% of Asian/Pacific Islanders and 44% of Black workers. Discriminatory and hostile environments are physically and psychologically stressful for people.

Employees expect companies to have a robust, visible, and authentic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They want to feel a sense of community and belonging; they want to feel valued and respected at work. So what does it mean for a company to act in a way that values inclusion?

  • Creating systems to reach and surpass DEI commitments (rather than setting goals with no concrete plan to reach them)
  • Building a hiring process that offers candidates transparency and opportunity
  • Ensuring that every person, employees and candidates both, has a voice in your community and in your company dialogue

We know belonging and inclusion are top of mind for organizations, but true change lies in reworking infrastructure to better support employee needs. Building a system of effective technology and strategy that adequately supports employees basic needs is essential to business success.


Considering the state of work, companies need to take measures to better support employees with access and trust. What we learn from psychology is that many of these needs are basic and infrastructural, meaning in order to better support employees we need to make changes to our people's infrastructure. And a well-rounded people infrastructure spans from supporting employees most basic needs like pay and flexibility to building a culture of belonging and inclusion.

We’re just scratching the surface of the findings of our recent research. To learn more about the state of the worker in 2022, download the Checkr and Everee report here.


2022 State of the Worker Report

A 2022 report by Checkr and Everee uncovering U.S. workers’ perceptions on pay, hiring, and equality in the workplace.

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