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Will a company’s footprint decide who’ll jump at the chance of joining?

A combination of conscious consumerism, grass roots activism and COP26 has made sustainability and the adoption of environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies a top priority for organisations. It’s also a pivotal factor in winning the war for talent, as people are increasingly more likely to move to another company if their employer’s sustainability values don’t align with their own.

This trend is reshaping the global recruitment landscape. Research from global recruitment firm Robert Walters found that 34% of UK office workers would refuse a job offer if a company’s environmental, sustainability or climate control values weren’t aligned with their own. In the US, the figure is 41%, while France and Chile both top the list with 53%.

The great resignation is already a reality. In the wake of the pandemic, an escalating climate crisis and high-profile social injustices, a survey by health insurance company Bupa found that in the UK, 64% of 18-to-22-year-olds consider it important for employers to act on environmental issues and 59% would stay longer with a company that had ESG commitments, as well as recommend it to others as a good place to work. Similarly in the US, college administrators are seeing an increasing number of students pursuing environment-related degrees and careers.

Andy Cartland, founder of executive search company Acre, says: “We have seen significant changes in the expectations of job seekers in the last few years. Some companies are adapting well to this and are winning. Those that aren’t are losing talented people to the companies that have adapted better.”

To become that destination organisation, employers have to balance their commitments to people, the planet and profit. They need to share and promote their sustainability credentials, performance and messaging to engage new and existing talent in the same way that they would other stakeholder groups.
Woman smiling

Winning the war for talent

Today’s consumer expectations are shaping a new market that’s socially active and responsible and businesses are recognising that need as evidenced by the steady growth in B Corporation accreditation. The B Corp movement aims to create a community of businesses that serve as the foundation of a healthier, more sustainable and more ethical society. But there are many ways that organisations can demonstrate their sustainability credentials.

Robert Belgrave, chairman and co-founder of Ecologi, which helps businesses and people lower their impact on the planet, and member of the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) Sustainability Council, has worked with many organisations demonstrating a commitment to sustainability through initiatives that range from tree planting to carbon off-setting.
“Today’s consumer expectations are shaping a new market that’s socially active and responsible and businesses are recognising that need as evidenced by the steady growth in B Corporation accreditation.”
Robert Belgrave, Chairman and Cofounder of Ecologi

High-profile examples include Microsoft’s pledge to pay back all the carbon debt accrued by the company since it was launched by 2030, in addition to covering any future emissions to become climate- positive. The Irish arm of insurance giant AXA committed to buying enough CO2 tonnage and plant enough trees to make every single person that insured a car with AXA in Ireland climate-positive for a year.

Belgrave explains: “A lot of what we are now seeing is the result of a generational shift and a natural evolution of the workforce. Broadly speaking, the younger you are, the more likely you are to care about sustainability. People born at a time when global warming was becoming a big issue are now in their late 30s or early 40s and reaching leadership positions themselves, so we have more people running companies who care deeply about this issue than ever before.”

Sustainable initiatives that make a tangible impact resonate with today’s socially conscious employees, who will also scrutinise their authenticity. Greenwashing – giving a false impression by making products seem more sustainable than they are – has become a contentious issue, perhaps more so among current employees, who will see through it, than potential recruits.
“Broadly speaking, the younger you are, the more likely you are to care about sustainability.”
Robert Belgrave, Chairman and Cofounder of Ecologi

Belgrave says: “As long as companies are actually doing what they say they’re doing, and not doing irreparable harm while branding themselves as responsible from an environmental point of view, in my opinion, it’s still positive. Sustainability is critical to any business that wants to be successful in 2022 and beyond, but collective action is what counts. No one individual or business can solve this, but if we combine forces, we can turn this around.”

B Corp accreditation gives the clearest commitment to responsible practices as it demonstrates that those organisations meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Since January 2020, B Lab Global, a non-profit network that certifies B Corps, has received more than 6,000 applications for certification from businesses – a 38% increase compared with the period 2018-2019 – looking to join the global community of 4,500 B Corps. B Corp certification is increasingly on the checklist of potential recruits.

“B Corp certification validates our commitment to sustainability and is something candidates are very interested in learning more about during the interview process,” says Meera McCann, head of talent at Kin + Carta Europe. “Candidates want to know how we practise our commitment to sustainability and responsible business, both through our internal practices and processes and our client work and the products we build.

“They also want to know how they can make a difference as an individual contributor. It’s important to recognise that businesses can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability in many other ways outside of B Corp.”

Ensuring sustainability is baked into the employee value proposition is essential for business success. Appropriate employee benefits could include electric vehicles offered on a salary sacrifice basis and ESG-specific flex allowances, through to educational resources focused on environmental stability and locally sourced food discounts.
Woman ascending climbing wall

The speed of sustainability progress

The Patagonias, IBMs and Unilevers of the world have based their brand and their whole mission around being sustainable. In doing so they have tapped into that higher sense of purpose that many employees now demand and are arguably in the strongest position for attracting talent. They have a clear grasp of how sustainability moves from being a buzzword to being embedded in the way business is done.

Others are no less well intentioned, but are at the mercy of the perceptions of the market sector they are in. In the heavy industries, like oil and gas, for example, even where companies are transitioning from legacy business to renewables, there is cynicism.

Cartland says: “There are some sustainability practitioners who wouldn’t consider industries such as oil and gas or tobacco as a career move. However, there are other people within the sustainability market looking for a challenge – this could include joining an oil and gas company, having a key role in that transition and contributing to the overall progress of the sustainability movement.”
“There is something about holding each other to a gentle accountability to open your mind and see that there is power there within your own role."
Jennifer Crowley, Director of Consulting Services and Sustainability, Kin + Carta

But as Jennifer Crowley, director of consulting services and sustainability at Kin + Carta, points out, sustainability in terms of its importance to future and current employees is more complex than binary classifications of good or bad for an organisation. Rather, it is about acknowledging the power of perceptions, subjective personal experiences and a genuine collective frustration that progress in sustainability in any organisation is not happening fast enough.

She says: “There is true tension between the urgency of our planetary goals and an individual’s need to close their laptop at an appropriate hour. We are trying to marry our desire to be successful as per the old system with a newer, deeper desire to connect with our values and our vulnerabilities as colleagues, friends and members of our communities.”

One of the challenges is that not enough companies have worked out how to link their employees’ values and support for sustainability with the employees’ daily work and the company’s operations. It’s not in the ‘why’, but in the ‘how’ of embedding sustainability where the gap lies.

When an employee joins an organisation after being attracted to its social impact values, it’s crucial that it’s easy for them to contribute from the outset. Keeping employees regularly updated on the results of their sustainability efforts will
also build trust in the employer and help them to feel confident in the work their company is doing.

Crowley adds: “We need to create space for one-to-one conversations between the organisation and new recruits that ask what kind of colleague are you going to be? How are you going to display curiosity and courage in your work? There is something about holding each other to a gentle accountability to assume the responsibility that each of us really does have within our roles.”

Upshot

• Sustainability needs to be visible throughout the organisation. Track progress on key sustainability indicators and share it with employees via dashboards and webcasts. Then celebrate success when sustainability goals are reached as it will reinforce the importance of these achievements.

• Provide staff with education and training about sustainability and develop systems and processes that help them to integrate sustainability into their business decisions more easily.

• Make sustainability part of the employee value proposition.

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This article originally appeared in Thread, Edition 1. Thread is Kin + Carta’s quarterly magazine that cuts through the complexity of digital transformation. Making sustainable change real, achievable and attainable. 

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