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Why a commitment to sustainability can attract and retain the best talent

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Why a commitment to sustainability can attract and retain the best talentAs employers begin to loosen their belts and look to add bench strength to their companies, they are seeking out the best of the best. Potential hires, too, are being selective in choosing their next employer and some of the criteria that they are basing their choices on may seem surprising.

It is often corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its larger umbrella — sustainability — that seems to motivate the best talent these days. A 2014 study conducted by the nonprofit group Net Impact showed that business school graduates would take a 15% pay cut to:
  • Work for an organization whose values are like my own (88%)
  • Have a job that seeks to make a social or environmental difference in the world (83%)
  • Have a job in a company committed to corporate and environmental responsibility (71%)

The view from both sides of the fence

These findings are not surprising to Winnie Klick Steffenson, director at Grant Thornton LLP’s Compensation and Benefits Consulting practice. “Corporate values are a key factor in a company’s ability to attract and retain a productive workforce,” she says. “Research shows that employees who are most highly skilled and sought after are those who care the most about corporate social responsibility.”

Similarly, she notes, companies that care the most about their communities and the environment also tend to demonstrate a strong commitment to the health and well-being of their employees. “These values go hand in hand,” Steffenson says. “Employee engagement is a huge driver of productivity. Companies that implement sustainable business practices often see employee commitment rise.  The reason for this is that employees feel a strong link to the values of their company.”

This commitment has a domino effect: Not only can a company with a solid CSR strategy attract the best talent, but it also retains the best people — those who appreciate the company’s culture and want to continue to be a part of it. “This is continually demonstrated in the 100 Best Places to Work list,” says Steffenson. “Over and over, we see that companies who are Employers of Choice are those with sustainable practices in place. Again, companies that care about the environment are also those who demonstrate a strong community focus and a commitment to the well-being of their employees.”

It is important to note, however, that companies who are winning in this space are those with a genuine, demonstrated commitment to CSR. Businesses who merely pay lip service to the strategy will quickly find themselves exposed. “The culture of a company is highly visible to the public,” says Steffenson. “It directly correlates to its business image and the ability to attract and retain great employees. If employees experience a disconnect between what is being communicated and what is actually being done, they are more likely to leave.” This can damage your business, both in terms of reputation and talent base.

Infusing your culture with sustainability-related values

So, with this in mind, how can your company begin to adopt sustainable business practices and create a culture of sustainability? This process should start at the top. “Sustainability has to be an integral part of your business culture,” says Steffenson. “It has to start with a strong commitment from the senior leadership team, and it has to be owned by everyone in the organization.”

If your company is ready to commit to sustainable business practices, you may start by creating a set of principles that will guide your business.  The International Institute for Sustainable Development provides a checklist for employers that starts with creating a mission statement, followed by establishing metrics for measuring and reporting. “You don’t have to start with big changes; it’s better to set goals that are achievable,” Steffenson says.

Once the CSR plan is in place and has strong leadership commitment, ask your team how can these changes be implemented? Creating internal champions is key here. “We’ve seen great success with a company that assembled a sustainability team who really helped get the initiative going throughout the organization,” notes Steffenson. And, as with any major change initiative, it is important to communicate — make sure employees know what is changing and how these changes support the CSR plan. As sustainable practices take hold, employees will start coming forward with suggestions for additional changes. This should be encouraged and rewarded.

Making sustainability a priority can enhance your work environment and improve the bottom line — it is no longer a “nice to have” business strategy; it is an integral component to managing your business and can be a valuable differentiator in attracting and retaining a talented workforce.