Employers Take Note: Young Workers Are Seeking Jobs with a Higher Purpose

9 minute read

Liz Paquette felt clueless when she walked into her college advisor’s office two years ago seeking his help to find an internship. She told him she had just one requirement: The company had to treat its people, its customers, and the planet well.

Paquette did the research with her advisor at Assumption University in Worcester, Mass., and they found an internship at organic yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm, in nearby Londonderry, N.H. But they also discovered that she had lots of competition: Some 212 other like-minded do-gooders applied for the same role.

Paquette persevered and landed the internship. But the company’s mission to make the planet better, which she says she saw and experienced at Stonyfield, helped her make an even more important decision. She accepted a full-time job at Stonyfield when the company unexpectedly made her an offer.

Liz Paquette
Liz Paquette, associate brand manager at Stonyfield, says she joined the company primarily because of its “do good” philosophy.Stonyfield

If a company can be tagged as a do-gooder, Stonyfield wears that label like a badge of honor.

Particularly on environmental issues. For the past five years it has donated millions of dollars to help convert ballfields and parks in 40 U.S. cities to pesticide-free maintenance. It has committed to a carbon positive dairy supply chain and to reducing its carbon footprint by 30% by 2030. It’s almost invested millions of dollars in training the next generation of dairy farmers–some of whom are not even suppliers of milk to Stonyfield.

“I fell in love with their mission,” says the 24-year-old, who in less than two years with the company has been promoted from an associate portfolio manager in sales to associate brand manager in marketing. “It’s important to work for a good company because they can do good things on a greater scale than I can do individually.”

Many workers no longer want to just do work—they want to do good. Some 70% of Americans say they define their sense of purpose through work, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. Millennials, in particular, are looking for opportunities in their work to contribute to what they believe is their wider purpose, the study suggested.

Welcome to the new American workplace, where having a positive impact and embracing a sense of purpose are mandatory for attracting younger workers, who demand that employers demonstrate purpose beyond profit.

Their thinking goes like this: “Hey, I don’t want to be associated with people who are scumbags or do things that hurt the world. I want to be associated with people who are a force for good,” explains Bill Schaninger, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co.

The symbolic essence of this do-good culture can come down to one simple act: do you wear — or remove — your company’s badge when you go out to lunch? If you nix the badge, that’s a pretty telling sign that you don’t approve of your company’s actions, says Schaninger.

Good matters. The response to one revealing question that a Gallup survey recently posed to workers proves it: Does your organization make a positive impact on people and the planet? Only 43% of respondents agreed. For today’s employers—who are having a hard enough time hanging on to workers—this can be deadly. Those employees who agree with the question are twice as likely to be engaged in their work and 5.5 times more likely to trust their company’s leadership, says Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace.

Employee expectations at work have fundamentally changed, particularly since the onset of Covid-19, says Harter. “It’s a real opportunity for organizations to figure out the next new normal.”

Millennials and Gen Z workers are not just talking the do-good talk. Perhaps no one knows that better than former Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg who co-founded the company in 1983. The 67-year old, who describes his current role at Stonyfield as chief organic optimist, and who recently announced plans to run for New Hampshire governor, says he’s never seen a generation so motivated to do good at work.

Gary Hirshberg
Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, says he’s never seen a generation so motivated to “do good” at work.Stonyfield

“Since Millennials began coming into early adulthood around 2000, there’s been an epidemic of interest in doing good,” says Hirshberg. He is a key investor — or sits on the boards — of 25 companies, and each of them has young sales and marketing chiefs who very specifically opted not to go “the Procter & Gamble route,” he says, and are making far less because their chief goal is to make the world a better place.

Now, larger companies also are embracing these same concepts, mostly because Millennials are embracing them, says Hirshberg. But they also must be genuine in their actions. “Companies that play fast and loose do so at their own peril,” he says. “Not only can these young people find out if you’re genuine, but they will never forgive you if you break their trust.”

Genuine cannot be ambiguous. Just ask Starbucks. Although the coffee kingpin remains a leader in its field offering healthcare and college tuition benefits, even to part-time employees, Starbucks currently garners fewer headlines for the years of efforts on behalf of its employees, than it does when a location votes to unionize. It also has kept an eye open for the well-being of its coffee farmers around the globe as well as the well-being of the planet. In 2020, Starbucks announced its commitment to reduce our carbon, water, and waste footprints by 50% by 2030.

Perhaps most intriguing has been the actions of Howard Schultz since recently returning as CEO. He announced an end to a multi-billion-dollar stock buyback program that was benefiting investors a lot more than employees. Schultz said the company will instead invest in its employees and its stores. “Our vision is to once again reimagine a first-of-a-kind, for-purpose company in which the value we create—for each of us as partners, for each of us as customers, for our communities, for the planet, for shareholders—comes because our company is designed to share success with each of us.”

Schultz also announced plans to go on a listening tour and meet with employees around the world to hear their ideas “about how to build this next Starbucks.” Next, he said, Starbucks employees of all levels would meet to “co-create a future of mutual thriving.”

While skeptics might suggest these actions could be more about staving off further unionization, Shultz’s actions suggest he knows that doing good has become an even greater employee magnet.

As part of a global survey last year, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) asked 6,000 people what attributes they want most from their leaders at work. The top four qualities are all related to what BCG calls actions of the “heart” (emotional well-being), says Debbie Lovich, managing director and senior partner. Respondents said they most want more recognition, coaching, listening, and caring from their leaders.

There’s still an enormous gap between what employees want and what employers do—but thanks to the pandemic, it’s finally starting to close, says Lovich. “No leader can ignore the need to do good.”

Even some companies and organizations whose sole mission is to benefit humanity are seeking ways to do even better—and attracting new employees because of it.

Chabeli Wells wasn’t sure what she wanted from her first employer, but after interning for a lobbying firm for a major tobacco company in Richmond, Va., she quickly knew what she didn’t want. “I learned to ask myself: What is the kind of work they are doing—and do I agree with it?”

Chabeli Wells
Chabeli Wells (left), volunteer coordinator at the Arlington Food Assistance Center, greets volunteers as they arrive.Jeremiah Huston

The 24-year-old answered that question when she began her first full-time job as volunteer coordinator at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), a food bank in Arlington, Va. that distributes food to 2,400 local families every week. “I want a career that I’m proud of — knowing that I’m actively, not just passively, helping others.”

Wells says that she was not only attracted by the charity’s mission to feed families in need, but some specific sections in the organization’s employee handbook that demonstrated they also care for their workers—and the planet. It may seem like a small thing, she says, but she was drawn to the charity’s composting of its food waste. “My generation is frustrated by the state of the planet and wants to keep it a viable place to live,” she says.

Then she saw something in the handbook that really impressed her: up to three days off for bereavement if your dog or cat dies. Charlie Meng, CEO of AFAC, is particularly proud of that benefit, which he calls “Spencer’s Rule.” Spencer was Meng’s beloved cat who died — after which, a heartbroken Meng took a few days off to mourn. “We all have deep connections to our pets. It’s an appropriate thing to do,” says Meng, who, even at age 70, clearly understands the mindset of his mostly twenty-something and thirty-something workforce.

Charlie Meng
Charlie Meng (left), CEO of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, says “a little bit of generosity goes a long way.”Jeremiah Huston

Meng instituted “Spencer’s Rule” shortly after the death. It’s been in place several years and only three employees have asked for pet bereavement time off. Employees might not use it much, but they still recognize it for what it is: a signal that they’re working for a company with heart, says Meng. “A little bit of generosity goes a long way.”

Which is precisely why Wells says she’s working there. “I’d much rather be happy in my work than worry about what the money looks like,” says Wells. “Many of my peers feel the same.”

Savvy companies are catching on: doing good apparently does good all around. At some workplaces, it may even be the tail that wags the dog — or cat.

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