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A Hire Calling

Some companies are starting to tout their green initiatives during the recruitment process to lure top talent and gain an edge over competitors.

Saturday, September 1, 2007
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You do all the right things to recruit top talent. You offer competitive salaries and good benefits, and you pay attention to work/life balance.

But other companies do, too. So what's your edge? Do you even have one?

Don't look now, but what may be the next big thing in recruiting is already here -- and some of your competitors are taking full advantage of it. They're thinking green. And we're not talking about the color of money.

In recent months, a small but growing number of large companies have begun touting their environmental records not just to the general public, but to prospective employees as well.

You might call it green recruiting.

Home Depot, for example, trains job-fair recruiters to discuss not only the company's benefits package -- but also its policy of purchasing lumber from sustainable forests.

McDonald's reaches out to job seekers through video podcasts on such esoteric environmental subjects as the impact of soy farming on Amazon deforestation.

And Dow Chemical Co. talks up its "environmental responsibility" in nearly every phase of the recruiting process, including job descriptions.

HR leaders at all three companies say that in today's highly competitive talent wars, this kind of green recruiting is essential to gaining an advantage.

"We don't get turned down on job offers because of what we're not doing for the environment, though we will get turned down because of money," says Deborah Borg, head of recruiting in North America for Midland, Mich.-based Dow. "But if all things were equal, we think Dow would be chosen because of what we're doing for the environment and the community. We use it as an edge."

Business experts, recruiters and business school professors say job seekers are starting to clamor for companies that have a real commitment to the environment, as part of an overall sense of corporate responsibility.

And perhaps what's most amazing, they say, is how slow corporate America has been to respond.

Kellie McElhaney, director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, recalls that when she discussed community engagement and green recruiting at a recent conference of HR professionals, "I was absolutely stupefied at how little they had thought about this. They didn't know what was going on inside their companies."

That's also been the experience of John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University who has studied green recruiting. He calls it "the next work/life balance," but says relatively few companies have figured that out.

"This is a thing no one has taken advantage of," he says.

That may be starting to change. Dayna Romanick, an Austin, Texas-based recruiter for Manpower Professional, searches nationwide for top technology professionals and managers for five Fortune 100 companies. Just in the last six months, she says, four of those companies have asked her to start telling job candidates about their commitment to the environment.

"To attract the top 1 percent of candidates in the country, every sales tool you have is important," she says. "Companies are looking for anything in their package that's going to trip someone's trigger."

Kurt Ronn, president of HRworks, an Atlanta-based recruiter for large companies, says that for many job candidates, a company's environmental record "can be a tipping point. But if you don't message it, the candidates aren't going to know."

What They Want

A recent survey by the Melville, N.Y.-based staffing firm Adecco USA seems to bear out the wisdom in trying to get that message across. The survey of 2,473 adults from around the United States found that for a third, working for a "green" company would be a factor in choosing a job.

"As the talent shortage becomes acute, I think more and more organizations are going to take a stance on this," says Bernadette Kenny, the senior vice president in charge of HR at Adecco Group North America.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey found that job seekers under the age of 35 were the most interested in a company's environmental commitment.

Sullivan notes that today's college students have been learning about recycling and the importance of the environment since elementary school, and it's thoroughly a part of their mind-sets.

"They get it beaten into them," he says.

The survey found the desire for an environmentally friendly company drops off as job candidates get older, but picks back up again for the 55-and-older set. That closely reflects the experience of recruiters and HR executives who have seen this firsthand.

They say job seekers coming out of college are now demanding to know the kinds of things that potential employers are doing for the environment -- but they're noticing a similar passion in baby boomers, who may be looking for more meaning in their careers and are desiring work at a company that reflects that.

"It's generational, but not stuck in one generation," says Ronn.

Joel Makower, the executive editor of GreenBiz.com, an online news and resource center focused on business and the environment, says he too has seen an upswing in interest by job seekers. He says he gets calls and e-mails every day, from not only students and graduates, but from experienced people switching careers who have decided that this time around, they'd like to work for a green company. They want to know three things about a company's commitment to the environment, he says:

* Does the company fully understand its "environmental footprint?" Does it fully grasp the environmental impact of the products it makes, of its suppliers and shippers, and what happens to the products after they're used?

* Does the company have specific environmental goals and timetables, such as working toward reducing manufacturing waste and becoming carbon-neutral?

* Is the company acting like a real leader on environmental issues? Is the company educating its employees, suppliers, customers and even its competitors on how to integrate environmental thinking into the operation?

Ronn and others who talk to job seekers point to a convergence of reasons why there's such a sudden interest in companies that are committed to the environment.

At the top of the list, they say, is America's growing belief that global warming is a real and perhaps imminent threat. Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and Hurricane Katrina have both added to those fears, particularly among younger people.

And there are other factors, they say. Sky-high gas prices and the country's oil dependency have turned people's thoughts to alternative energy sources, and to the environment in general.

Even the continuing war in Iraq has had an effect on potential job seekers by contributing to a sense of helplessness in the face of world events, and the desire to make a difference, even in one's own small way.

"You have this almost perfect storm," says Ronn. "It forces people to say, 'What can I do about this now?' You can't save the world every day, but if you work for a large organization, there is someone in the company that is doing that. So your impact is greater."

And, he says, "This is where corporate America has an opportunity."

How Dow Does It

It's an opportunity that Dow is seizing with both hands.

At career days on college campuses, Dow recruiters talk about the company's green initiatives, such as reducing emissions from its plants and making environmentally friendly products that go into building supplies. Recruiters also discuss Dow's "Human Element" campaign, which showcases what various Dow workers are doing for the environment and for the community in general.

In a follow-up to the career days, hundreds of graduating students are invited to visit Dow plants, and the company's environmental commitment is again heavily emphasized. Lately, the students have been asking about that commitment much more than in years past, says Borg.

"They don't want to see the basic chemical or plastic products that we make," says Borg. "People want to know, 'What flexibility will I have in changing the world?' I was astounded at the number of students who were interested in that."

Dow reaches out to potential job candidates in other ways. Those who express an interest in Dow while visiting the company's corporate careers Web page are sent videos and podcasts, including several that emphasize what the company is doing to better the environment.

And every Dow job description contains a one-paragraph blurb about the company that concludes with the statement, "Dow and its approximately 43,000 employees seek to balance economic, environmental and social responsibilities."

Borg says that perhaps Dow has to work harder than some other companies in selling its environmental message.

While graduates going into research and engineering might simply be choosing between one chemical company and another, those in non-science areas, such as finance and law, have to first be sold on the chemical industry. And a good way to do that is to talk about Dow and the environment, she says.

"When we bring a finance person in, we'll show them what we're doing with sustainable drinking water," she says. "It shows them that they're working for a company that is trying to save the world."

Dow has an added burden to overcome -- a public image that was tarnished by two very non-environmentally friendly products it manufactured for the Vietnam War: napalm, a liquid incendiary, and the defoliant Agent Orange, which has been linked to cancer and other illnesses in Vietnam vets.

Julie Fasone Holder, Dow's corporate vice president of marketing and sales, human resources and public affairs, says that over the years, the company was not proactive enough in improving its image.

"We thought that if we did good things, people would notice," she says. "But they didn't."

A year and a half ago, Dow launched a new "reputation strategy" aimed at the public, job seekers and corporate partners. Dow's commitment to the environment plays a key role in the strategy, and the company discovered that the message was "really resonating on college campuses," says Fasone Holder.

"We decided, if it resonates, let's use it," she says. "Our recruiting folks jumped on it and incorporated it into our recruiting process."

Few Following Suit

Companies such as Dow, though, seem to be in the minority.

Amy Lyman, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Great Place to Work Institute, a consulting company that compiles the "100 Best" list for Fortune magazine, says although job seekers are more interested in green companies these days, "I haven't noticed it rise up as a recruiting tool." Asked whether she can think of any examples at all, she says, "I can't say I've seen it used as a recruiting tool."

It's not easy to find companies that do use it. In preparing this story, HRE contacted nearly two dozen companies that recruiters and others believed did green recruiting, or were on business-magazine lists of "green companies." Only a handful of those companies said they made their environmental record a part of their recruiting process.

Several that don't do green recruiting -- including Pittsburgh-based Alcoa; the Atlanta-based carpet company Interface; and yogurt-maker Stoneyfield Farm, based in Londonderry, N.H. -- all say they have a strong public image as being environmentally friendly, and that brings in plenty of job candidates. They don't make that image part of the recruiting process, they say, because they don't need to.

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Business experts who have tracked the progress of green recruiting say there are a number of reasons why some companies have been slow to adopt it.

"Companies are still trying to figure out how to talk about these things publicly," says Makower, of GreenBiz.com. One reason: "When they get out in front of this issue, they risk becoming a target."

He cited the case of an apparel company that started purchasing 2 percent of its cotton from organic sources, but didn't want to publicize it. The company was afraid the public might ask whether the other 98 percent was bad for the environment, he says.

McElhaney, of Berkeley, says some companies don't have the "substance" to back up claims of an environmental commitment. And even those that do have the substance often aren't thinking in terms of using it to attract job candidates.

At many companies, she says, the departments that deal with corporate social responsibility aren't tied into HR. Firms are treating those departments "as a separate add-on, not part of their corporate strategy," she says. "They aren't taking it as seriously as they should."

San Francisco State's Sullivan says some companies are worried that if they blow their own horns about their environmental records, job-seekers might see it as less than genuine.

"The companies think, 'If we say we're doing it to help recruit people, it takes some of the niceness out if it.' "

But most of the blame, says Sullivan, goes to human resources. "HR is not into change," he says simply. While HR professionals should be talking to job candidates about a company's environmental record, he says, they rarely do. "You've got all these people in HR who don't want to do that," he says. "They say, 'I want to talk about our 401(k).' "

Sullivan, a frequent adviser to Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley firms, has developed a step-by-step approach to green recruiting. Among his suggestions (his complete list is on www.HREOnline.com):

* Advertise in magazines likely to be read by candidates who are interested in the environment.

* Give managers "green" fact sheets to use during job interviews.

* Make sure your environmental record is prominent on your corporate careers Web pages.

Customized Approaches

Because green recruiting is so new, each company is finding its own way, experimenting to discover what works. For example, Pacific Gas & Electric, the San Francisco-based investor-owned utility, promotes its environmental commitment in its MBA recruiting program. The company's CFO travels to college campuses to talk to MBAs, and "there is a thread throughout the presentation that speaks to the environment and social responsibility," says Denise Mooney, who manages the program.

When the CFO discusses things such as the utility's use of renewable energy, the students are extremely engaged, asking questions that might include,

" 'Why haven't you explored this path or that path?' " she says. "We're competing with consulting firms and banks, and if a utility company is on campus and doesn't talk about these things, I think it would be a huge mistake."

McDonald's, headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill., pursues green recruiting on a variety of fronts. For example, it asks headhunters and recruiting firms to talk to job candidates about the company's commitment to the environment, such as its shift to sustainable fisheries, says Rich Floersch, chief human resource officer.

When job interviews are scheduled, prospective employees are sent reports and pamphlets on the company's social responsibility effort, a large part of which deals with environmental issues.

That effort is emphasized during job interviews, and job candidates are invited to read blogs and download podcasts that focus on the company's green initiatives, says Floersch.

One video podcast deals with McDonald's partnership with the environmental activist group Greenpeace to prevent the deforestation of Amazon rain forests by soy farmers. Greenpeace had earler accused McDonald's of relying on farmers who deforested land for soy -- which is used in chicken feed -- and the company says it is now trying to spread the word that it is doing the right thing.

McDonald's has also taken an unusual approach to reach out to business students. Both Berkeley's Hass School of Business and the Harvard Business School have studied the company's supply chain and its environmental sustainability.

McDonald's, which has 1.6 million employees around the world, targets its green recruiting both at professional and restaurant employees. "This issue cuts across staff hires as well as store hires," says Floersch.

The company needs to be competitive when making both kinds of hires, and talking about its environmental record is an important way of differentiating itself.

"People have a lot of choices of where they can work," says Floersch. "If you don't tell your story, you don't get out the very positive things."

Another company that takes an innovative approach is Atlanta-based Home Depot, which promotes its environmental initiatives at career fairs aimed at students, military personnel leaving the service and other groups.

Those initiatives include eliminating unnecessary packaging and buying lumber that comes from sustainable forests. Job seekers at such fairs often ask, " 'What things are you guys doing, if anything, to conserve the environment?' " says Marlon Sullivan, the company's senior director of staffing. "We have to tell them we're not wiping out the forests to sell lumber."

Home Depot trains its career-fair recruiters to talk "confidently" about the company's environmental commitment, says Sullivan. Home Depot is selling itself, but it goes beyond that -- the company wants to find employees who share its values.

Job candidates are told, " 'It's not just that we're doing the right thing -- we believe this is the right thing to do,' " he says. "It gives them a sense of belonging and alignment. There's nothing better than working for a company that aligns with your values."

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