Employees First

Signs of cultural shifts that have contributed to the Great Resignation were visible many years before the global pandemic. As early as 2006, CultureQ research identified Millennials were quitting jobs because of lack of fulfillment. Millennial employee turnover had grown significantly enough by 2016 that Galuup calculated its cost to business.

In 2014, we learned Millennials defined the culture of their ideal employer as enriching and empowering through research associated with the 5-step model of Brand Citizenship. While the order of importance may have changed and GenZ is now part of the workforce, the general rules for engagement we uncovered then  continue to apply today:

  1. Connect employees through common values and purpose not stage in career or skillset.
  2. Be a close friend, not a faceless boss – personalize communications and give employees opportunities to take a break and interact with coworkers in more personal ways.
  3. Acknowledge the reality of modern life by offering knowledge libraries and services that help employees juggle work with personal responsibilities.
  4. Mobilize employees behind sustainability and doing good; invite them to co-create initiatives with you.
  5. Foster stewardship of communities important to your employees and focus on initiatives where you can really make a difference.

The piece below is a reprint of an excerpt entitled Employees First from Do Good, Chapter 6 - Responsibility. While gaining a higher level of fulfillment from work is a newer desire, wanting to be treated well and fairly by your employer is not. Nor is the need for employers to cultivate a happy workforce….

While there are signs that brand activism may be growing in importance, companies practicing Step 3—Responsibility—today are more often concerned about modifying policies and practices so that positive behavior change becomes institutionalized across operations. 

To become active citizens rather than passive spectators, many brands like Unilever have broadened their definition of value creation to include a wider range of stakeholders, not only shareholders, society, and the environment. Having no formulas for success, they are experimenting with new systems and models to identify what will work best given their individual company culture. These brand owners appreciate that wider involvement is needed to achieve real impact, effectively strengthen their reputation, and cultivate deeper loyalty with customers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders. They understand that the old ways of doing things no long work. Brands at Step 3 accept that nurturing people and the planet is crucial to growing loyalty and profit in the longer term. Incorporating these elements into their operations, they are tapping into the power of the virtuous circle and creating greater social value alongside financial returns.

Step 3 of Brand Citizenship emphasizes the importance of putting people first, before profit and even the planet. Over our three years of CultureQ research, participants ranked treating employees well and fairly as the number one characteristic of a good corporate citizen and the number two trait of a leadership brand (behind the characteristic “produces reliable, durable products and services and offers value for quality”). As Walmart and Amazon illustrate, whether true or false, brands perceived as treating employees poorly bump along the ME-to-WE continuum rather than deftly gliding across it. Since the oldest Millennials entered the workplace around the turn of the new millennium, employee engagement and satisfaction have jetted to the top of executive agendas. 

Indeed, when the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states in the United States in 2015, numerous media pundits proclaimed that embracing the rainbow was smart business because Millennials were a more diverse and inclusive generation. A 2014 CultureQ study into how people define their ideal employer revealed that Millennials, more so than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, seek a friendly, supportive work environment; opportunities for social engagement; a commitment to volunteerism; and good values and a leadership reputation. Deloitte, PwC, McKinsey & Company, and many others have conducted studies that have uncovered similar insights.

Wanting to be treated well and fairly by your employer is not new. Nor is cultivating a happy workforce. Since the height of the Industrial Revolution, employers have equated employee benefits with the output of higher-quality products and better employee recruitment and retention. Long before today’s populism was on the rise or Millennials entered the workforce, nineteenth-century industrialists understood that happier employees were more productive workers. Building company towns to house workers, establishing pension plans, and providing the services of company doctors, they sought to increase output and encourage loyalty as labor demand began to surpass supply by bettering workers’ social welfare. While some like George Cadbury, founder of Cadbury’s cocoa and chocolate company in Britain, were sincerely motivated by principles and responsibility, others like George Pullman, an American engineer and industrialist who created the Pullman sleeping car and developed a business around it, were more paternalistic or even exploitative. In 1875, the American Express Railroad established the first private pension plan in the United States, followed by other railroads, utilities, large manufacturers, and banks.4 In 1910, Montgomery Ward offered one of the first group insurance plans. And in 1914, Henry Ford introduced the $5 workday, which was more than double the average factory wage at the time.5,6

Post–World War II, companies offered perks as they sought to recruit and retain the most talented workers from a limited pool. As the labor force grew, workers became more dispensable. When companies began to lay off middle management in the 1970s, downsizing to distribute greater earnings to shareholders, the needs of employees shifted to a secondary concern. Today, however, the needs of employees are again being highlighted, but not because the labor pool has shrunk in size. Indeed, with Millennials in the workforce, it has grown.

So why are businesses so concerned about keeping Millennial employees happy? Because, based on Gallup estimates, they cost the U.S. economy $30.5 billion in turnover annually. More so than prior generations, Millennials are less loyal to companies and more focused on their own priorities. Gallup’s 2016 study, How Millennials Want to Work and Live, reported that 21 percent of Millennials, more than three times the number of non-Millennials, say they’ve changed jobs within the past year. Similarly, a Jobvite study found that 42 percent of Millennials change jobs every one to three years. Gallup further uncovered that 60 percent of Millennials are open to a different job opportunity, as compared to 45 percent of non-Millennials. While sites like LinkedIn have made it easier for unhappy employees to look for new jobs and for companies to steal talent, many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers judge Millennials as having unrealistic expectations of work—with those expectations being ego driven. 

In 2007, before the Great Recession, I gained an alternative perspective to the latter perception through an exploratory study we conducted with eighteen- to twenty-seven-year olds in the UK, the United States, Australia, and Central Europe for STA Travel, the world’s largest travel company for students and young people. As part of the research, participants completed journals and a series of creative exercises over one month, in which they reflected on their friendships, self-definition, free time, personal development, work, and travel. A highly creative and achievement-oriented group, the majority were overstressed and yearned for more meaning in their lives. 

Participants who were twenty-two years old or older shared that they had switched jobs already or were planning to do so within a year. Work wasn’t as satisfying as they had expected, and the idea of “putting in their time” before being given more responsibility did not resonate with them. The story a twenty-two-year-old Australian woman told us illustrates the Millennial perspective:

Back in Sydney, work was going well, but I felt I had learned all that I could and became bored in the role. I was offered a secondment [or a temporary assignment] for three months as Marketing and Communications Consultant for the City of Sydney. My boss thought it was a great opportunity and approved it straight away. When it was presented to the management team, all but one signed it off, so it didn’t go through. I was really disappointed and lost all motivation to stay in the company. For me, work was the biggest influence on me leaving [Australia to travel instead] when I did.

The workplace has not been the nirvana Millennials were promised by their parents, teachers, coaches, and others. A number of participants in our study felt their parents had “set them up for failure not success.” From early on, they were raised to believe if you work hard, do well in school, and get into the right university, you’ll get the best job, earn a lot of money, and be happy. Scheduled from one activity to the next, most rarely experienced unstructured time even at a young age. For the oldest Millennials who had entered the workforce before the Great Recession, the promised pot at the end of the rainbow was missing something. 

Since 2008, when the job market weakened and as more Millennials entered the workforce, this nascent trend of Millennials having a lack of job loyalty has become one of the defining characteristics of this generation that employers continue to wrestle with. 

In this chapter, I’ll explore how organizations from the retail, consumer goods, and fashion industries are addressing issues of employee engagement, social welfare, and the environment while being true to their purpose. Each of the brands operates in a responsible way, uniquely balancing who they are with the benefits they deliver across the ME-to-WE continuum.