Ready for the new age of employee activism?

Companies are in a competition to attract and retain the best and brightest employees. According to a recent CBS news article, there are 1 million more job openings than job seekers. The competition is occurring in an environment where unemployment is at an all-time low and top talent is hard to attract and retain. And, it’s expected to remain a tight market well into the future. A Korn Ferry study from last year predicts a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people by 2030, roughly equivalent to the population of Germany.

Compounding a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent in such a tight job market is the social contract between employer and employees is changing in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. 

Today, employees are no longer checking their personal social and political views at the door of their companies. They are beginning to exert pressure inside a company with its leadership to "move them" to take a more public stand on politically charged social and environmental issues they care about in much the same way as they do as voters in political campaigns.

A recent example to illustrate this point can be found inside Amazon. Several thousand employees signed a letter urging CEO Jeff Bezos and his board to adopt stronger environmental practices. Even more recent is the mass walk-out of Wayfair employees in protest over the sale of the company’s products to migrant detention centers at the border.

Employees also have different expectations about what they want from their daily job. There is no shortage of studies that find the vast majority of employees seek opportunities for more societal purpose, defined as serving a charitable or social cause, while on the job. Add to this the fact that growing numbers of Americans are increasingly aware of and concerned about new threats to environmental health and future sustainability — particularly as pertains to a once controversial topic, climate change — and the implications are clear: Meeting employee expectations about environmental action at the workplace is a modern-day necessity.

Little is known, however, about how to meet this employee desire. Even less known are the expectations employees have of their companies on environmental issues and the degree to which companies are fulfilling employees’ desire to engage them in environmental issues. To better understand this transformation taking place inside the workplace, EarthShare commissioned a survey of employees who work at Fortune 1000 companies to better understand the current social contract between employer and employee.  

The environmental expectation gap

Our survey of Fortune 1000 employees found that if companies are to meet employee expectations for corporate environmental efforts, and reap the associated bottom-line benefits, they have significant work ahead of them.

Only 15 percent of Fortune 1000 employees rate their company’s commitment to addressing important environmental issues as excellent. Significantly, executives appear unaware of the magnitude of this environmental expectations gap. They are more than twice as likely as non-executives to believe their company’s commitment to environmental issues is excellent. 

The study also found that established employee engagement programs no longer may be enough for employees who wish to make an impact. The survey defined employee engagement as the "efforts by an organization to fully involve its employees in the programs, practices and operations of the organization, including charitable giving, volunteering and other means to positively impact society." Only 29 percent of employees felt they were very satisfied with these types of opportunities. While employees expect company-organized engagement activities, they are more interested in two emerging practices: purposeful work and corporate activism.

Bringing a sense of societal mission into today’s workplace appears to be a necessity. Nearly half (48 percent) of Fortune 1000 employees consider finding a sense of purpose through their everyday work, a practice known as "job purposing," very important. Yet, only 26 percent of employees believe that their company’s environmental commitments are reflected in their day-to-day jobs.

Purposeful work ranks higher than paid family leave

Indeed, "job purposing" — a term that refers to integrating mission-driven purpose into daily work — might be the next logical addition to benefits packages. The survey found that employees consider purposeful work more important than paid family leave, flexible work schedule and/or opportunities to work remotely, opportunities for career advancement and training and/or continued learning opportunities.

While more traditional benefits — competitive pay, paid vacations and holidays, affordable/reliable health insurance benefits and retirement investment options — rank higher, there’s little doubt that many employees see integrating a mission-driven purpose into the day-to-day job responsibilities as an expected benefit a company should provide.

Transformational change has entered the workplace

These insights continue to paint a picture about the degree of transformation happening at workplaces across the country, and a shift that more clearly defines today’s social contract between employer and employee. In order to compete and remain competitive in this tight labor market, companies can and should consider these actions: 

  • Explore, via surveys or other methods, the degree to which employees believe your CEO/company is making a meaningful commitment to address environmental issues.
  • Review internal communication methods and channels to ensure that all employees are familiar with your company’s environmental commitments. Ensure messaging meets your employees where they are, with accessible language (environmental sustainability language can be technical) on platforms they most commonly use.
  • Examine your company’s current policies, programs and ways in which employee job satisfaction is measured.
  • Build out comprehensive environmental engagement programs that offer a range of opportunities to provide variety and hit the mark for your employees.
  • Explore establishing a skills-based volunteer program which, if done well, can provide employees with meaningful work that can help them advance their careers while having a positive impact within their communities.
  • Consider integrating your sustainability efforts — which traditionally may have been spearheaded by dedicated Green Teams — by educating and using Business Resource Groups (BRGs) on crossover issues, such as environmental justice and healthy, accessible food.

Moving forward

A century ago, employee safety was not an employer concern. Half a century ago, businesses could disregard employee health insurance needs with few repercussions. A quarter of a century ago, employee volunteer programs and office paper recycling efforts were not widespread. Today, all of these practices are commonplace throughout Fortune 1000 companies.

The advantage in the labor market goes to employers who first hear and respond to their employees’ calls for heightened environmental action. And history suggests that employee pressure to integrate environmentalism into jobs and the public pulpits eventually will make these practices ubiquitous.