Engaging Millennial Employees in Sustainability Campaigns

[Watch an introductory video on Millennials by Erin Schrode of Teens Turning Green, SB 2011]

People make a company. This simple truth is becoming increasing relevant for businesses looking to hire and retain a younger workforce, one that will take companies forward for the next few decades. The challenge is, the emerging pool of talent is dominated by ‘millennials‘, a group that is changing the rules of the game. Remember a time when a steady paycheck was enough to ensure lifelong commitment from employees? No more.  A 2011 PWC study on those born between 1980 and 2000 indicates that millennials actively seek multiple employers, sometimes at the same time. They are willing to forgo financial reward for enhanced personal development opportunity and a better work/life balance. And in a radical breakaway from earlier generations, nearly 60% of millennials say they would only work for an employer whose social and environmental values resonate their own progressive views. A stunning 86% would consider leaving an employer whose ethics did not match their own. They are constantly asking the question, “Why do I want to work here?”, driven by the belief that their work can change the world. One respondent sums it up as, “My career will be one of choice, not one chosen out of desperation. It will align who I am with what I do.”

With the coming of this new generation of workers, companies have to rethink ways to engage employees in sustainability initiatives. Say goodbye to the “switch off the computer when you go home” memos or the annual tree-planting campaigns. The youngest members of the workforce understand that sustainability cannot be achieved by sporadic token measures. They are eager to see deep commitment from management and big-ticket successes. For sustainability managers, this can be both exciting and challenging. Millennials require little convincing and are keen to participate in campaigns. On the flip side, it will be essential to manage expectations and keep younger employees motivated for the long haul. In the past, successful company-wide measures have subscribed to three ‘golden rules’; rope in top management, tie financial incentives to sustainability performance and finally, share good and bad news. While these remain critically important to doing good, engaging millennials requires managers to go a bit further. Let’s look at three new ways to channel younger employees towards creating lasting change.

1. Co-create strategies

Enthusiasm, confidence and conviction are the greatest assets of the new generation. In the past, new employees ‘kept their head down’ till they felt secure enough to voice their opinions. No longer. Millennials are ready to voice their concerns from the get-go. Given their comfort with the digital age and belief in their ability to make a difference, millennials are an asset to any ‘green’ or CSR team. Pulling them in early to help create strategic direction is not only smart, it is crucial. It will ensure that young employees will be able to carry an initiative forward and help them understand the challenges of implementing sustainability measures in the real world.

2. Make participation fun, social and voluntary

Gone are the days when ‘greening’ the workplace meant forcing new behaviors using large measures of guilt. Social media has demonstrated that when something is fun, social and voluntary, it can be very powerful. Hyatt Hotels has taken this message to heart, using a social-networking site, Hyatt Thrive, for 300+ green teams around the world. Associates from 480-odd proprieties share stories, photos and presentations around two major themes, Earth (environment) and Community (social responsibility). Local projects are as diverse as rebuilding a school to a month-long river clean-up, prompting discussion and providing inspiration to other teams around the globe. For millennials, it is a natural extension of their attitudes towards networking and the best way to involve young employees on a daily basis.

3. Take it beyond the workplace

Who wouldn’t want to work for Clif Bar? The California-based energy food maker is a sustainability pioneer, a company where employees are encouraged to raise the performance bar higher, both at work and at home. Clif Bar was offsetting carbon, installing solar and recycling  at their headquarters before most companies (more on their 10-year anniversary here). Outside the office, they encourage their team to purchase electric/hybrid vehicles and make ‘green’ home improvements. Teams also get together to maintain biking and hiking trails and participate in local CSAs. Making that connection between company policy and personal lifestyles can send a very powerful message to millennial employees, saying ‘we believe in what we preach’.

Engaging your millennials in sustainability programs early on is a strategic move for a number of reasons. This is a generation that is committed to sustainability, passionate about social equity and not afraid to challenge the status quo. Who better to leave our planet to?

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