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Mary Riddle headshot

Despite Rising Cost of Living, Big Business Risks Losing Talent Over Values

Gen Z and millennial workers expect more from their employers — and the rising cost of living won't stop them from quitting workplaces that don't share their values, according to new research from former Unilever CEO Paul Polman.
By Mary Riddle
A photo looking down at two pairs of shoes and the words "Passion Led Us Here".

Image credit: Ian Schneider via Unsplash

U.S. employees would rather work for a company that has a positive impact, even if it means reduced pay. New research from Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, shows that while pay and benefits are important, they are not the only factors that talent considers when choosing where to work. 

Almost 90 percent of workers consider their employers’ values, and about 75 percent specifically consider a company’s commitment to the environment and social equality. Even as Americans face an inflationary crisis, the majority are worried about the future of the planet and society. Sixty-six percent of all workers — including 71 percent of Gen Z and millennials — reported this concern, compared to 36 percent who said they’re worried about paying their bills. 

The Great Resignation continues, finds new research from Paul Polman

Many experts expected the “Great Resignation” to largely disappear as the economy slowed down in 2022. However, despite inflationary concerns and economic anxiety, workers are continuing to resign in near-record numbers. Polman’s research suggests that one of the leading drivers behind these resignations could be the lack of alignment between employer and employee values. 

“Times have changed and employees no longer want outdated corporate social responsibility initiatives and a lack of action,” Paul Polman said in a statement. “Unsatisfied and unmotivated employees recognize the power is in the hands of the CEOs. They want to work for companies which work to tackle the world’s greatest challenges, and they want to play their part. Or they’ll leave.” 

Polman encouraged CEOs to embrace and examine the link between employee job satisfaction and their companies’ environmental and social impacts. While pay, benefits and work-life balance are key considerations that employees do take into account when evaluating job prospects, company values are not far behind, according to Polman. 

Over a third of workers have already resigned from a position due to their employers’ values misaligning with their own, while another third reported that they were willing to take a pay cut in order to work for a company that shares their environmental and social values. That number rose to nearly half among Gen Z and millennial respondents.

How employees are feeling 

Over 75 percent of U.S. workers want to work for companies that have a positive impact on the world, but the majority of workers believe that businesses’ current social and environmental initiatives are not good enough. According to Polman’s research, Gen Z and millennials are even more likely to believe that the companies they work for should help solve environmental and social challenges. 

“Anxiety is on the rise in my generation; we’ve inherited a climate crisis, broken political systems, and increasing social polarization. We’re tired of greenwashing and empty commitments," said Clover Hogan, a climate activist and the founder of Force of Nature. "Counter to the image painted of Gen Z, we don’t want beanbags and table tennis in the office; we want to work for organizations that reflect our values. CEOs who fail to see this, and take action, will be left behind."

Yet more than a third of Gen Z and millennial participants reported that their CEOs and senior leadership teams did not care enough about the environment or social issues. 

What can CEOs do? 

Sustainability and social programs are key components when it comes to workplace satisfaction and engagement for Gen Z and millennial workers. But workplace engagement levels are tanking as employee stress is reaching an all-time high. At the same time, over two-thirds of Gen Z and millennial employees reported wanting to play a greater role in helping their company change for the better. Therefore, CEOs must entirely rethink talent attraction, as well as employee satisfaction, engagement and retention. Companies should also be transparent about their sustainability initiatives and invite employees to be a part of the solution.  

“Any CEO who thinks they will win the talent wars by offering a bit more money, some extra home-working and a gym membership is going to be disappointed. An era of conscious quitting is on the way,” Paul Polman said.

The former CEO’s research demonstrates how forward-thinking companies can turn this crisis into an opportunity as workers leave employers that lack environmental and social ambition. While a company’s commitment to values cannot completely make up for uncompetitive pay, it can help attract talent and improve employee engagement through the development of robust sustainability programs that encourage and empower employees to participate. In this way, improving the planet can also improve a company’s bottom line.

Image credit: Ian Schneider/Unsplash 

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

Read more stories by Mary Riddle