Jessie Sitnick, Vice President, Corporate and Public Affairs
“Aren’t you calling in sick?” asked a colleague from a partner organization when we suggested setting up a meeting for Friday (April 22). “It’s Earth Day.” He sent me a link to a new website: remedytogether.org. The premise: climate change is taking a toll on our mental health. The remedy is “group therapy” – and collective action: “Call in sick this Earth Day and join a community climate event.”
Clever as it is, the campaign gave me pause. Why should I have to call in sick to engage in community action on climate change? My workplace, my colleagues—they are my community. Shouldn’t this be about what we can achieve together? After more thought, what I initially saw as a campaign flaw, I’ve come to think as a warning.
If people believe they need to opt out of work to make a difference on climate change, that is cause for employer alarm. Bells should be clanging in the C-suite and, perhaps loudest of all, in the HR department.
From recruitment and retention to culture and compliance—a company’s real and perceived relationship with climate change deeply impacts its relationship with its people. Just as investors and consumers are putting companies under the green microscope—so too are employees. The results are less than encouraging.
Our 2021 Argyle Public Relationship Index found employees viewed their employers’ environmental leadership as lagging their social and governance performance. Deloitte’s 2021 Millennial and Gen Z survey found less than half of millennials and Gen Zs think business is having a positive impact on society and the environment, and 60% worried business’ commitment to reversing climate change will be less of a priority in the wake of the pandemic.
This matters. “We know that companies’ climate strategies have become increasingly important to today’s workers,” says Michele Parmelee, Deloitte’s Global Deputy CEO and Chief People and Purpose Officer. “Businesses that evolve operations and embed environmental, social, and governance (ESG) consciousness into workplace culture will be a step ahead in the race for talent in a highly competitive marketplace.” Research bears this out:
A 2021 Gallup Poll found 69% of workers consider a company’s environmental record when deciding to take a job; a quarter describe it as a “major factor.”
A study commissioned by an HR software company, ELMO, found 71% of Gen Z workers and more than half of Millennials would refuse to work for a business that did not take action to address climate change.
A 2019 study, drawn from conversations with 1,000 employees of large US companies, found the vast majority of respondents want to work for a company with a strong environmental agenda; half of those interviewed (and three-quarters of Millennials participants) would even accept a lower salary to do so.
Of course, there is what people say and there is what people do—which is why the rise of employee climate activism is a trend worth watching.
The Amazon employee movement—Amazon Employees for Climate Justice—is a trailblazer in this arena. In 2019, employees used their stock options to engage in shareholder activism, tabling a climate plan resolution in front of the Board. While their proposal didn’t pass, the action opened a floodgate of employee organization around climate issues, which spread beyond Amazon.
Employees at Google, Twitter, and Microsoft walked off the job in solidarity with Amazon employees to call for greater corporate action on climate change. More than 2,000 Google employees sent an open letter to senior leadership demanding a company-wide climate plan, which included committing to zero emissions by 2030 (a demand the company met in its most recent climate commitment).
As University of Washington Professor Margaret O’Mara notes, what we’re seeing is a historical anomaly. “Collective action is rare among white-collar workers,” she explains. The highly skilled workers engaged in climate activism represent a tremendous investment, in terms of hiring, training, salary. They are among these companies’ most valuable assets, and difficult and expensive to replace.
The trend extends beyond tech. Last year, more than 1,000 McKinsey employees signed an open letter to the firm’s partners siting deep concern with the company’s work on behalf of fossil fuel sector clients. “Our inaction on (or perhaps assistance with) client emissions poses serious risk to our reputation, our client relationships, and our ability to build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people,” the letter states.
In response, McKinsey’s leadership made the case that walking away from the fossil fuel sector was not a solution to climate change. Just days before an employee “Ask Me Anything” event on Earth Day 2021, the company announced its intention to help clients reduce their emissions to meet science-aligned targets and to be “the largest private-sector catalyst for decarbonization.”
The point of this story is not to debate whether McKinsey’s work with fossil fuel sector clients is aligned with its values and climate ambitions. Rather, it is the fact employees could not make this connection. If employees are not “in” on your corporate climate plan and your theory of change— if they do not understand it, feel a part of it, or believe it is genuine—both your reputation and effectiveness could be at risk.
If employees are not “in” on your corporate climate plan and your theory of change— if they do not understand it, feel a part of it, or believe it is genuine—both your reputation and effectiveness could be at risk.
As business leaders face increasing external pressure from investors and consumers to show up as a positive force for the environment, they must look and engage inward. Employees are more than necessary validators for corporate environmental commitments; they will bring those commitments to fruition.
To be clear, this does not mean simply asking employees to recycle more or unplug their monitors at night (though both are positive actions). It means helping employees understand how sustainability efforts—both organizational and external—are intrinsic to the company’s business strategy and goals.
No one should need the word “sustainability” in their title to feel they are contributing to a better world by showing up at work. The companies winning the war for talent know this. They aren’t asking employees to leave their climate activism at the door; they are bringing it in and channeling it.
Argyle works with committed organizations at all stages of their sustainability journey to authentically communicate and engage with the people that matter to them most. To explore how we can help develop or support your strategy, contact Jessie Sitnick, VP of Sustainable Value, at [email protected].