Your employees – including both those who currently work for you and those that you’d like to have work for you – aren’t who they used to be. That is, they don’t want or expect the same things that employees and job candidates used to want or expect. Like tastes, public sentiment, and the view of some historical figures, things change, and employees in today’s world have different opinions about and expectations for their prospective employers. The smartest of companies have taken notice and made changes to their approach and some of their human resources practices.
Many companies have put a huge effort (not to mention cost and time) into their HR departments to enable them to develop a better “employee experience” to differentiate themselves in the workplace and attract and retain more employees. And in a time of talent shortages, it’s usually money and effort well-spent if it leads to a substantially stronger job candidate pool and a higher employee retention rate.
Enhancing the “employee experience” can run the gamut from an array of programs for mental, financial, and physical health to ongoing education and training to things that are meant just to make work a little more fun and feel a little less like “work”. Measuring the effectiveness of these programs isn’t always easy and requires making a leap of faith that if an employee gets their life needs better met at your company vs. another, they will come to – and stay with – your firm. And while that conclusion would seem logical, an important question to consider today is “but, is it enough?”
Enter The New Focus on Sustainability
For some companies, the emergence of the importance of both human rights and environmental consciousness has led them to combine their “employee experience” programs into a new concept referred to as “people sustainability”. This catch-all encompasses traditional programs like those highlighted above along with ones that ensure fairness in all aspects of the workplace along with standards that reflect the company’s responsibility to be a positive citizen of the world at large.
Several companies spurred by new European Union regulations have taken the lead in this emerging trend by issuing their “human rights standards” that reflect not only their concern and focus on their employees’ well-being but on the well-being of those outside the company. This sense of global citizenship is impressive as it shows how the corporate world can flex its muscles not just to gain market share or increase their employees’ job satisfaction, but also to help improve the lives of others who may or may not ever touch their products or use their services.
Generally, these standards include a stance on safety, health, non-discrimination, paid time off from work, general respect for others and personal differences, and equitable pay, but may also include positions on broader global issues like access to clean water, child welfare, and other basic human rights.
Of course, these efforts beg a few key questions:
- For employees, do they really value when their company takes a strong position on something broader? Does it yield greater loyalty?
- For other interested parties, do these types of programs make a real difference in improving lives around the world or is it just to try to steer outside perception?
- For the company, do these types of programs help in more tangible ways like financial performance? That is, either by helping generate revenue or by saving cost?
To the first question, it’s probably true that these programs engender greater employee allegiance, but that is one that is easy enough to gauge by use of some type of employee engagement survey. To the second question, it’s probably a bit too early to say for certain, but missing an opportunity to use a company’s influence power to make a positive impact in the world would seem like too large of an opportunity to miss. And, if it helps improve the company’s image at the same time then even better. To the third question, the likelihood is that it’s to a company’s moderate financial advantage. The likely gain is all of the things that come with greater engagement and increased sustainability: reduced employee turnover, enhanced talent attraction, and a positive public perception. Of course, those could be offset (albeit, just slightly) by some type of counter sentiment or other external factors beyond the company’s control, so it would be wise to step cautiously.
All that being said, few could effectively argue that it isn’t well past time for companies to step up to help face the larger societal problems that plague us all. With their financial muscle and powers of influence, corporations can help ensure that the world becomes safer, healthier, and an overall better place for the current and future generations to live. Even if the outcome is just having greater sustainability of life, that alone has clear economic benefit to most companies as it means more products and services will be needed by more people for a longer period of time. And certainly, there are financial benefits in that!
Some Practical Recommendations & Considerations
Establishing a basic human rights approach for your company doesn’t require an extreme amount of internal resources but does necessitate that a clear position be articulated and that there are strong assurances that minimize – if not completely eliminate – the chance of internal hypocrisy. So, while the infrastructure to support this can be rather light, there should be clear identification as to who “owns” the policy.
Even in smaller organizations, the position of “Chief Ethics Officer” is not an unusual title for someone who already holds another full-time role internally to assume. Issues as local as the right to form a union and command fair pay and good working conditions to much larger global topics like climate change and child labor can be covered depending on what topics the organization’s leadership feels most strongly about and most wants the world to know how they feel. And while this role should work closely with the Head of Human Resources, it need not be an HR expert who assumes it. What matters most is that the individual has a degree of personal passion about the issues and has the access to senior leadership to quickly identify and rectify any conflicts to the policy that emerge.
Companies with operations in multiple countries need to consider a view on human rights and sustainability that carries both local credibility and global significance. And while it may not seem like a huge risk to stand up for something so basic, it can be hard to navigate through the multiple layers of interpretation your stance might be viewed from. The old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished” could prove to be true once again, not to mention the increased level of scrutiny that the company would have to always live up to the moral principles they themselves established. And, of course, these new standards could also extend to others including suppliers.
So, is it worth it? Well, when has taking a stand for dignity, freedom, fairness, and sustainability not been worth it? Certainly, it’s popular to jump on trend these days and there’s little doubt the current generation comes to the workplace with a different set of expectations from their employers than their parents had. So, in the near term, it could serve companies well in both the marketplace and in the race for talent, but convincing your current employees and interested outsiders on the sincerity of your efforts to support the greater human condition can be one of the biggest hurdles.
Of course, a more “basic” challenge that may hit your company even sooner is simply finding the right kind of talent in the first place. While most companies take the usual strategy of first looking internally to find the right person to fill a role and if unsuccessful, then trying to look externally – perhaps even using a professional search agency if the need is great and/or urgent – talent gaps are most often the biggest roadblocks to profitable growth.
Much like diners look to Yelp! or Google to help guide their restaurant and entertainment choices, your current (and prospective) talent will often draw conclusions about organizations from the judgments of others who have weighed in online, which gets us back to the importance of reputation that the company holds – often drawn in part (or wholly) – from the reviewers.
Not many companies are fortunate enough to have such a sterling reputation that employees of all skill levels are knocking down their doors for interviews. Even those perceived to be in the upper echelon of employers have gotten tarnished a bit over the years. So, while it starts with having a reputation as positive as possible, it also still depends greatly on your HR department to find, “sell,” and nurture the right kind of talent you need.
It’s been said that the ability to identify talent is a rarer talent than pure talent itself, but this capacity doesn’t happen by chance. Rather it comes through a talent acquisition team that understands the needs as well as or better than the hiring manager, that has the best tools to efficiently determine organizational fit, and that has the flexibility to court the candidate and present a compelling offer that hits on the candidate’s key decision points.
This means investing in your talent acquisition function is another imperative. Some companies have been known to use behavioral assessment games to show the personality traits and soft skills of candidates. This showcases elements of a candidate’s emotional intelligence and provide insights that are close to impossible to gain in a typical structured interview. Other companies have even tried to use artificial intelligence (AI) to help them make key decisions on talent, but like the use (and arguably overuse) of analytics in sports to drive decisions on the field, nothing will ever fully replace the face-to-face interview.
In the end, it comes down to this – today’s employees want more and expect more. The best ones have always been able to command it from companies. And while it perhaps used to be that there was a time when they just wanted “more” for themselves, now they want “more” for the causes they believe in and are bigger than themselves. Companies have always had the choice to either meet that demand and therefore hire and keep the best talent or not. That hasn’t changed. But, if meeting the demands of today’s generation means using their power to help make the world a more inclusive, and more sustainable place, what could be the argument against this trend?
Senior Consulting Advisor