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ESG as a workforce strategy: post-COVID attraction and retention

In March, the headlines got it right. Crooning ‘Where are the workers?’, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Chicago Tribune, and AP News all picked up on the paradox plaguing post-pandemic hiring. Millions of people are out of a job – why can’t employers find candidates?

esg as a workforce strategy

One solution may be in developing ESG as a workforce strategy – that is, incorporating Environmental, Social, and Governance issues into your brand identity with talent attraction and retention being a benefit.

Let’s start with why: The workforce was not immune to the migration patterns of the pandemic. Affording everyone the time to re-examine anything, from a life’s purpose to a day-to-day routine, the lockdown was a time of mass decision-making.

The ‘Great Resignation’ then earned its name as professionals across all industries shed their pre-pandemic roles. Increased turnover became one of an employer’s many costs. But in a normal economy, one worker’s loss would be another worker’s gain – roles would fill about as quickly as they’re given up. Now, employers have made it clear: there’s a disconnect between the post-COVID candidate and the roles at hand.

A look at the numbers

Talent and employers are passing each other like two ships in the night. This past March, US employers added a seasonally adjusted 916,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate reached a new pandemic low of 6%. Still, recruitment campaigns are flopping, candidates are in short supply, and professionals continue to change paths across virtually all sectors.

Conversely, LinkedIn data shows that professionals in the United States added over 110,000 volunteer activities to their profiles monthly since the inception of the pandemic. That’s a near 250% increase since 2017.

And the boom of ESG-focused investing has come from retail investors as much as it’s come from institutional activity; new investors are showing a large interest in green bonds, and 56% of households with more than $100,000 to invest are showing an overwhelming preference for impact investments.

These numbers quantify an important COVID change: purpose-driven living has become a full-time occupation. Professionals want ESG values represented and upheld across all segments of their life, including and especially the team with whom they focus their working talent.

A tight ESG labor market

Before the pandemic, BlackRock reported that many of their high-profile investors planned to double their allocations into sustainable products over the next five years. A subsequent report announced that one-fifth of those investors felt the pandemic had accelerated their plans to do so.

That early influx of capital led to a job boom in the ESG space, attracting the market’s best talent.

Already, the wave of behavioral change is evident across industries. Companies are under pressure to adopt new standards and regulations for ESG operations and sustainable investing in order to source investment capital and satisfy stakeholders. ESG is the new workplace normal, and will soon be a standard workforce strategy rather than basic value proposition.

Re-imagining the post-COVID EVP

Employers need new tactics to differentiate their employee value proposition (or EVP for short). Introducing tangible ESG as a workforce strategy is an important place to begin. The large-scale purpose and impact of the company is important. But the day-to-day initiatives, policies, and campaigns are important places in which employees feel those social values reflected.

Consider the actions of industry giants throughout the pandemic:

The scale of these actions reflects the size of these corporations, but small and mid-sized businesses can instill the same corporate practices with the same effect. Regardless of magnitude, these decisions made by industry giants reflect what they’ve noticed among their employee culture: social involvement and purpose-driven impact is an important part of employee satisfaction, competitive recruitment, and top talent retention.

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Hilton: A case study in workplace happiness

At the end of 2020, Fortune released its list of the 100 best companies to work for based on self-reported workplace happiness of employees. The top 25 companies are similar to 2019, with a few exceptions, including Hilton. A newcomer to the top 25, Hilton climbed all the way to #1. Let’s consider their pandemic response.

Notably, Hilton partnered with American Express to donate one million hotel room nights across the U.S. for frontline workers. In addition, the company made a $1 million contribution to the World Central Kitchen, providing healthy, fresh meals for healthcare providers.

Their Hilton Effect Foundation Grants provided an additional $1 million in community response efforts. Meanwhile, their success in cutting their environmental footprint in half and doubling their social impact investments worldwide led them to be named the global industry leader in sustainability for the second year in a row.

It is the case that the Hilton team was able to impart a significantly positive impact on many communities throughout COVID-19. But it’s also the case that those social initiatives occupied a large part of the company mission, meaning that those goals were a constant part of an employee’s day-to-day responsibilities.

The sequential earning of both titles, ’global leader in sustainability’ and ‘best place to work,’ is no coincidence. But it is perhaps the day-to-day experience of striving for environmental and social impact, rather than the final culmination of the effort, that makes the Hilton work experience so fulfilling. In terms of ESG as a workforce strategy, it’s a model to look up to.

It’s about good intentions

Again, it’s not the scale of the initiative, but the intention behind it: purposeful ESG as a workforce strategy needs to be top of mind to attract and keep the best performing talent in the industry. Offering the time or financial resources that allow employees to volunteer in their own communities is another way for small or medium size businesses to achieve the same effect.

Similarly, smaller sized corporations can create social-oriented projects that allow each team member to contribute their expertise toward community impact. For example:

  • Pay a web designer to create an order platform for a local food bank
  • Offer senior executives days off to mentor younger professionals in the field
  • Work in a standard donation amount into an employee’s salary to go toward the organization of their choosing

These are other ways to bring ESG aims closer to the day-to-day operations.

Post-COVID recruitment needs to center on similar questions. What opportunities are we providing for employees to bring their social awareness, environmental commitment, and global concerns into the workplace? The lines between home and work have blurred. With them, the demarcation between work purpose and life purpose has faded.

Employers that can offer a work culture that’s fulfilling, purpose-driven, and ESG-oriented will see their efforts rewarded in the prospective candidates and existing employees alike, and the post-COVID workplace will change for the better the way all real change takes place – from the ground up.

Tara Milburn is the Founder and CEO of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company that makes it easy for HR professionals to offer personalized promotional products that they can stand behind. Certified as a B-Corporation, Ethical Swag has been audited to the highest global standard for sustainability.

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