Of those born between 1981 and 1996, 62% want to work for a company that makes a positive impact.
by Matthew Jenkin
There’s a quiet revolution happening across Britain’s workforce, but it’s not about pay, hours or contracts. It’s a coup d’état led by the nation’s young, politically engaged jobseekers who demand employers enshrine values and ethics in their business model, not just profit.
Almost half the workforce (42%) now want to work for an organisation that has a positive impact on the world, according to research carried out by consultancy Global Tolerance. The survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK found 44% thought meaningful work that helped others was more important than a high salary and 36% would work harder if their company benefitted society.
The change, it would appear, is being driven by the so-called millennials. Of those born between 1981 and 1996, 62% want to work for a company that makes a positive impact, half prefer purposeful work to a high salary, and 53% would work harder if they were making a difference to others.
This has serious ramifications for employers. Ignoring the mood of the next generation means closing yourself off to two thirds of the young talent pool. It’s not surprising therefore that companies big and small are eager to trumpet their values and ethical policies.
The business case for running a values-driven firm also extends beyond recruitment. Consultant Simon Cohen believes having a company-wide aspiration to make a positive difference will also boost staff motivation and lead to an increase in productivity and efficiency.
Cohen, a writer and social commentator, left a lucrative career in advertising in 2003 because he felt unhappy about the lack of values at the heart of the company’s business model. Aged 23, he set up Global Tolerance (now run by CEO Rosie Warin), a company which prides itself on working with people committed to positive social change. Its impressive portfolio includes the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and Prince Charles.
He explains the success of the business was not despite their values but because of them. There’s more to doing the right thing, he says, than receiving a patronising pat on the shoulder – it just makes really good business sense.
Cohen says: “By creating a culture and environment which has values that are meaningful and aligned with those of staff, people are more motivated to work for you and will bend over backwards for things that they believe in.
“Employees are not just doing it because it is a job, the work becomes an extension of themselves. Values don’t stop or start when you get into the office or go home, they are a part of you and what you are passionate about.”
Whether you are a twenty-something graduate or in an established career, a level of cynicism is wise in a market now saturated with businesses falling over themselves to prove their worth as an ethical employer. Cohen says he has observed a huge boom in corporations which have seen the business potential of positivity in the market and being perceived to be values driven.
There has been a lot of greenwashing and people are right to be wary, he says. “There’s no point just saying that compassion is a value on the homepage of your website – compassion needs to permeate the whole business.
“Businesses need to reflect very deeply about what their values are and how they can demonstrate it across the business culture. We live in a time where we have a very astute public and they can smell bullshit a million miles off.”
Sharon Goymer, resourcing manager for National Grid, says the growing trend for more values-driven business models has had a massive impact on recruitment. She agrees, however, that it’s not good enough for the business to wear its values on its sleeve. In order to gain the trust and loyalty of staff you need to walk the talk.
“A lot of the energy industry is made up of male workers in their 40s, 50s and 60s. One of our big priorities is improving diversity and bringing in the next generation,” Goymer explains. “Having our values up front attracts these individuals to the organisation, but it’s not about just saying it, it’s about presenting the evidence to support it.”
National Grid is achieving this through running educational activities in schools to encourage young people of all levels and backgrounds to pursue science, engineering, maths and technology careers, while staff are encouraged to undertake some form of volunteering during their time at the company. The company, which was named Responsible Business of the Year last summer, also set up an employee group aimed at fostering ethnic diversity and inclusivity among its workforce.
If companies are keen for their values to reflect those of their workforce, what role do employees have in shaping the business’s policies? Goymer warns that changing a company’s values too often at the whim of staff can be problematic in a large corporation with a diversity of views and cultures. However, in a small business there may be room for more flexibility.
Entrepreneur Ciaron Dunne founded Cambridge-based Office Genie in 2008 after graduating from the city’s university. He was keen to recruit a team of hard-working creatives who would lead the digital startup to success. At the same time, however, he wanted a workforce that was motivated by more than just money and placed an emphasis on giving back to the local community.
Staff members have taken part in voluntary work including a litter-pick at the river and renovating a charity premises. Staff are also encouraged to focus on professional growth and the company is introducing a 20% rule where all employees are required to spend that amount of office time on a professional growth project.
Dunne admits that most of these projects were not solely management decisions – they were initiated by staff members.
He says: “When you recruit people who are looking for more out of life than just money, it is inevitable that those individuals will suggest you should be doing more for the community.
“The feedback from employees is also that it is something they want to do. In our staff survey, we had 100% saying they would recommend working for us. The retention rate is therefore high.
“I believe in Office Genie as a business, but there are some aspects which are of course relatively dry. But you can get people very motivated very quickly by buying into what the company stands for, what it wants to achieve and the culture it wants to have.”