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During interviews with job candidates at Novozymes, a Danish biotechnology company, Anne Sophie Bisbjerg Lee finds two questions being asked far more frequently than in the past: how is the company making a positive impact on society and how can individual employees make their own social impact at the company?
“The sustainability agenda is definitely climbing up the ranks of the topics they want to discuss,” says Ms Bisbjerg Lee, who is the company’s vice-president of people and organisation. “They’re looking for meaningful work.”
For a company like Novozymes — which uses the UN Sustainable Development Goals to guide everything from innovation and product development to the setting of targets and corporate strategy — providing answers is not difficult. But for recruiters whose company has yet to have internal discussions about corporate purpose or sustainability strategies, candidates’ questions can be tougher to answer.
Business school graduates — particularly if they have taken courses on environmental sustainability or ethical business — can spot the difference between what is PR hype and what is genuine.
“The era when corporate social responsibility was essentially the paramilitary wing of the comms department is over,” says Simon Kingston, who heads the non-profit sector and the global development practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
Nor have MBA students always given the corporate world a ringing endorsement for its performance on sustainability. In a 2015 survey of more than 3,700 business students around the world, 64 per cent said they did not think business was making sufficient efforts to address environmental challenges.
Last year, in an international poll of business students by the UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education and Australia’s Macquarie Graduate School of Management, more than 80 per cent agreed that companies should do “a lot more” for society and the environment.
The bar is rising. Recruitment experts say that candidates now expect employers to go far further than issuing mission statements, introducing office paper recycling initiatives or making contributions to local charities.
Lesley Uren, senior client partner at recruitment firm Korn Ferry, argues that what is needed is “a re-examination of the business at every level” so that commitments to sustainable business are reflected in everything from procurement to performance measurement.
“That’s where the hard work has to happen,” she says. “And that will either attract the next generation of MBAs or turn them off entirely.”
Mr Kingston agrees. “You can say ‘this is how we comply with ESG regulations’ or ‘this is the sort of organisation we want to be.’ But that is no longer enough.”
This is not to say that all business graduates are relinquishing salary levels, benefits and career prospects in pursuit of purpose — particularly those who need to pay off the hefty debts incurred during their studies.
“Our research is telling us that all things being equal, if the company has a great sustainability programme that’s part of the culture and the offer is the same, they’ll go for that,” says Johnny Taylor, Jr, president and chief executive of the US-based Society for Human Resources Management. “But it’s amazing what people will trade off for career growth and money.”
When it comes to accommodating the desire of business graduates to make a difference, one model many companies have adopted is the fellowship. These programmes — popular in consulting firms — send employees to work in local community organisations or international non-profits for a certain period of time.
Accenture, the consultancy, pioneered this approach with its Accenture Development Partnerships programme, enabling consultants to work in development organisations around the world. “People have consulting and working experiences in non-profits in the development sector alongside their commercial work,” says Gib Bulloch, a former Accenture executive who developed the programme, which he says did a lot to help the firm attract top MBA graduates.
Today, however, he believes companies need to go beyond single initiatives. “The crop of MBAs coming out now are looking for authentic purpose,” he argues. The key question candidates are asking, he says, is: “If you want my skills in this competitive labour market, how empowered will I be to do something that’s more than a job and is more a vocation?”
Conveying this to potential employees should start at the recruitment stage, says Ms Bisbjerg Lee. “We consistently get feedback that the culture of openness is reflected in the way we interview, rather than trying to sell a message,” she says.
Mr Bulloch, whose Business Decelerator offers workshops to help executives effect change within large corporations, argues that to attract and retain the next generation of talent, companies need to be willing to let them participate in making a social or an environmental impact regardless of job function or title.
“It’s helping them understand that in these huge organisations they can do a lot without necessarily being in the C-suite,” he says. “And it’s the bottom-up change I’m interested in — because I don’t see it coming top down.”
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