Does Sustainability Change the Talent Equation?

When it comes to tapping into the passions of employees, the opportunities and threats that sustainability presents are two sides of the same coin.

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The promise of working with a company that makes sustainability a priority is a powerful incentive. Credit some of that power to the lowly cubicle.

The Leading Question

When a company takes up sustainability, how does people management change?

  • Talent recruitment and retention rise.
  • Employee engagement — and productivity — improves.
  • Employee expectations rise as well, with a potentially negative backlash if a company’s behavior doesn’t live up to its intentions.

“You’ve gone through this generation that have lived in cubicles,” says 36-year-old Cameron Sinclair, cofounder of Architecture for Humanity Inc., a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that brings professional design services to communities in need. Cubicle culture may have started with a noble idea — openness and accessibility — but for many office workers, cubicle life turned into, as Sinclair puts it, “being holed away in a five-foot-high, fabric-panel square without any view of the world.”

Employees are hungry not just for a paycheck and some creativity in their job but for companies that pay attention to that world and ask them to, too. And increasingly, that translates into wanting companies to pay attention to issues around sustainability.

It’s not just charitable companies like Sinclair’s that are alert to the possibilities. Conversations with 70 thought leaders as well as responses to the Sustainability Initiative survey bear this out: of private sector companies, 57% say they expect employee interest in sustainability to impact their organizations. Over one-third of companies — 37% — already highlight sustainability initiatives in recruiting. And some 43% are drawing on employees to be part of the process by designing products or processes for reuse or recycling.

But just as companies are benefitting from new employee hungers, they’re encountering risks. When you unleash employee passion, expectations change. There are costs to not meeting them.

First Wave of Payoffs: Attraction and Retention

“You see it at the front lines of recruiting,” says Peter Schwartz, cofounder and current chairman of the Global Business Network, a scenario planning consultancy headquartered in San Francisco. “One of my former staff went back to graduate school and is getting an MBA at Stanford and a PhD at Stanford in ecosystems. I was asking him, ‘How’s it going at school?’ And he said, ‘Half the people want to be green business, and half want to go into investment banking and are deeply depressed.


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