Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory to HR Responsibilities

Applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs to the workplace

How you can use the theory to keep your employees engaged and offer support during the cost-of-living crisis.

With the current cost-of-living crisis and rise in businesses adopting hybrid and remote working, keeping employees engaged and motivated is more important than ever.

Read on to discover what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is and how it can help you keep employee engagement levels high. 

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What is the Theory?

When Abraham Maslow created his Hierarchy of Needs, he argued that humans are motivated by five essential needs: physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualisation (also known as self-fulfilment).

At the bottom of the pyramid are our physiological needs, such as food, water, sleep, and warmth. Safety concerns come next, and these include comfort, security, and stability. Moving up the pyramid, we come to social needs, such as a sense of belonging and friendship, and esteem needs, such as a positive self-image, prestige and status, before topping out with self-actualisation, which is about feeling fulfilled through growth, advancement and creativity.

Putting theory into practice

What does this mean for HR professionals and the employees in their care? How do you translate a theoretical tool into something that can help you motivate, recruit and retain employees?

Here are some examples:

  • Physiological needs – This includes having a place to work, a regular monthly salary, a comfortable working environment and essential facilities (such as tea/coffee-making facilities).
  • Safety needs – These needs include having formal contracts of employment as well as benefits such as a pension scheme and sick pay. There should also be an emphasis on health and safety in the working environment.
  • Social needs – Managing an employee’s social needs can usually be done through promoting group working across teams, departments and different levels, as well as encouraging team building through social activities. However, with many of us working from home, this can be tricky. Make use of communication tools like Microsoft Teams, Skype or Zoom so employees can socialise and collaborate with each other. Additionally, ensure senior managers are having regular meetings and catch-ups with their team. Don’t forget to take some time out to have fun as a team too. From the classic online quiz to a bake-along, there are many options out there for a virtual get-together!
  • Self-esteem – At the self-esteem level, respect for others and praise is important. A 360-degree feedback and appraisal system can help. You can reward employees’ contributions, and a peer-to-peer or social recognition programme will celebrate employees’ achievements and confer prestige and respect.
  • Self-actualisation – At the highest level, personal development plans, training, secondments, mentoring, and the opportunity for promotion enable staff to be the very best they can be. By implementing regular talent planning meetings among managers and HR, having career discussions with employees and offering options such as fast-track management programmes, your organisation can fulfil employees’ self-actualisation needs while ensuring they have the expertise to fill future vacancies.

The image below also highlights how the Hierarchy of Needs can work in an organisation.




In Maslow’s theory, employees whose lowest-level needs have not been met will make decisions based on compensation, safety, or stability concerns. So it is vital that HR professionals ensure that these needs are fulfilled before others further up the pyramid.

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It is also worth noting that employees will default to their lowest-level needs if their higher-level needs are no longer being satisfied; for example, in our current cost-of-living crisis, employees will also focus on compensation, safety, or stability concerns.

Maslow also introduced the idea that our needs constantly change: as one need is met, then so we desire the level above it. The pay rise we received last year ago won’t motivate us for the next five years, the recognition award we were presented with two years ago won’t satisfy our current needs for appreciation, and the training course we did three years ago won’t fulfil our need to be learning new skills and knowledge now.


Modern motivation has moved on from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs alone. But this simple motivation tool remains important, and as such, it can help HR professionals achieve many organisational goals, such as improved staff retention and employee engagement, as long as they understand how to apply it in a practical manner and continually adapt to meet their employees’ changing needs.


Maslow's theories are just some of the elements that form how an employee is motivated. To discover how rewards and recognition can help improve the engagement of your employees, get your free motivation checklist by clicking the link below!

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