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Gen Y Demands More of Employers

By Tom Watson on September 5, 2008No Comment

Millennials expect to be convinced that employers genuinely care about a greater good beyond financial profit, and they want to both be engaged and included in the process of making a positive impact. 

Millennials, defined loosely as those born in the 1980s and early 1990s, comprise approximately 75 million people in the United States.  These twenty-somethings were born to Baby Boomer parents (population 82 million) and have both the means and the sheer volume to make a profound impact upon the world in which they operate. 

Generation Y grew up with both an increased ability and heightened desire to give back. Perhaps most importantly during their defining years, this group experienced the September 11th attack as well as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina while in school, whether they had just entered kindergarten or were midway through college.  As a result, this generation had an early opportunity to demonstrate both its ability to make a serious impact as well as its eagerness to do so. 

Now, as an increasing number of Millennials enter the workforce, they seek to translate their personal commitment to the social good into a positive work experience.  Millennials bring a unique perspective to philanthropy because they will not be limited by the status quo.  Furthermore, they see real value in adapting to and appropriating new trends.  Gen Y doesn’t think twice before donating free rice online by clicking a button or becoming a fan of a favorite nonprofit organization on Facebook.  With this attitude, they are poised to make a huge impact on philanthropy.

Still, the unresolved question: How to marry the expectations of Generation Y and the undeniable needs of corporate America under the leadership of Baby Boomers and Gen X?  Too many Millennials find themselves unhappy and unfulfilled in traditional corporate America, yet aren’t compelled to work in a direct service environment.  Members of this generation are eager to be a part of innovative companies that leverage their resources to make a significant impact through corporate social responsibility.

In order for companies to remain competitive to potential employees—a necessity as the imminent departure of Baby Boomers creates a tremendous void—they must begin to address the valid concerns and expectations of the Millennials.  What follows is a list of trends in the for-profit industry that fulfill the dual purpose of satisfying the needs of Gen Y while also complying with the larger responsibilities of corporate America. 

Be kind to the environment.
As soon as the Millennials were introduced to the environment in school, they learned about endangered species and melting ice caps.  As adults, they feel that adopting smart environmental practices is vital to demonstrate that they aren’t blissfully unaware of anything but themselves.  Such collective habits create a socially conscious dynamic in the workplace; more importantly, it stands out glaringly when companies aren’t environmentally friendly. 

In some cases, it is simply a matter of a company leveraging what it is already doing for the environment and being more vocal about its efforts.  For example, when Chrysler recently announced that it would be converting a Detroit plant that primarily focuses on SUV’s to a fuel-efficient car plant, it could be proposed the company was simply keeping on the heels of two other major American players in the industry, Ford and General Motors. That case in point, it’s reasonable to publicize when smart business practices coincide with environmentally friendly decisions.

Adopting green practices internally is just as important to the Millennial workforce and will often end up saving companies money in the long run. “Green” products have become increasingly easy to use - whether they’re low-energy appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, recycled paper, or, to get really wacky, disposable cartons and utensils made of potato instead of traditional plastic ones.   

Encourage employee volunteerism.
Because Gen Y has been brought up to juggle soccer practice and ballet lessons and summer camp and swim team, it values diversity of experience.  Additionally, as the product of a wired world, Millennials are used to maximum flexibility and multiple options.  So, to appeal to a young, energetic workforce invested in volunteering, consider offering flexibility of volunteer time and locations, as well as types of activities.  Some companies provide release time for employees to reward them for personal commitment to a cause.  Others partner with organizations such as AngelPoints, VolunteerMatch or SmartChange that provide customizable online databases of volunteer opportunities to which employees can commit on an individual level.

While traditional volunteerism programs are sure to attract Millennials interested in service, to really stand out from the crowd a company might consider developing a program that ties to both the company’s social and business missions. Programs such as skills-based volunteerism and pro-bono service link community service to the company’s bottom line, an enticing concept to Millennials looking for employers for which CSR is intertwined throughout.  One company that links service to its business successfully is IBM, which has created a volunteer subset called the IBM Service Corps.  This new program engages IBM employees to volunteer their time and expertise internationally to struggling organizations located in countries where the technology company hopes to develop a stronger presence.  This competitive program, which selected 600 employees this year from a pool of 5,500 applicants, not only permits the IBM employees to feel like they can volunteer in a way that provides a meaningful impact, but it also reinforces IBM’s commitment to volunteerism on an international scale.  Because IBM’s motivation is clear, employees can feel comfortable in becoming equally invested in this cause that is both strategic and altruistic.

Build a responsible brand identity.
Gen Y is already aware of the companies taking innovative steps in this arena, and they reward such companies by using and promoting their products.  According to the “College Explorer” survey conducted by Alloy Media & Marketing, current college students are reportedly more likely to use a product if it is associated with a socially responsible company.  More importantly, according to the Millennial Cause study published by Cone Inc., “The Millennial Generation: Pro-Social and Empowered to Change the World,” nearly 1 in 2 Millennials reported that they would not buy a product from a company with a poor social reputation.

Some of the brands highlighted by the Alloy survey include Nike, Toyota, Yoplait, Target, and Burt’s Bees.  The authors of the survey attribute a great deal of the companies’ success to both superior marketing around the social investments of their companies and around the perception of how the companies market specifically to Gen Y.  Of the companies lauded by college students, only two specifically produce socially responsible products: Toyota (hybrid cars), and Burt’s Bees (products that don’t harm the environment).  The other companies simply do an excellent job of being socially responsible.

Demonstrating corporate social responsibility comes down to a lot more than simply making donations to support worthy causes; there are a variety of funding mechanisms that help fiscal support really pack a punch.  Ranging from basic event sponsorships to extensive cause marketing campaigns, social responsibility represents much more in today’s society than simple benevolence.  Corporate social responsibility allows for an inevitable return on investment as a result of higher visibility, positive associations with the company name, and, for some, the impetus needed to use a company’s services or products.  Most importantly, in today’s world, and particularly in the realm occupied by Gen Y, social responsibility is nearly expected.  Thus, if a company shies away from contributing to society, this can negatively impact perceptions of its priorities.

Be upfront and honest about corporate social responsibility practices.
Despite being generally optimistic about society and firmly believing that each organization really can make an impact, Millennials have also grown up in the face of Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley.  Thus, it seems companies are faced with the challenge of countering negative stereotypes before promoting their own positive actions. 

While an important case can be made for a concerted effort toward best practices in corporate social responsibility, what is far more important is demonstrated pride and dedication to what a company actually does.  If corporate giving is low, but employees are engaged and volunteer often, be honest.  If volunteering is a weak point, then perhaps this void provides a place where a new and driven Gen Y employee can shine.

Check out a company that positions its take on social responsibility well: Getty Images.  This organization makes it clear that it thrives on its corporate environment and sense of inclusion, and its corporate giving platform echoes this same priority.  Getty Images does not try to do more than what makes sense, given its business objectives, and it does not make its corporate responsibility platform sound inflated or vague.  Plus, it demonstrates through its website design that it does indeed excel through imagery.

In closing, it is clear that social engagement will play a major role in the future of business in the U.S. if Millennials have anything to say about it.  In a recent survey profiled by MarketWatch and conducted by Experience Inc., an increasing number of MBA candidates state that they plan to study socially conscious business practices, if only because it represents the reality of the future of corporate America.  As these students signal both the oldest elements of Generation Y as well as members of the other generations, one can imagine that the bulk of Gen Y, when leading the workforce, will insist even more upon socially responsible practices.

These ideas are only a starting point and by no means conclusive. It’s exciting to see what the future will hold and the extent to which companies will use social engagement to involve Gen Y employees in the success of their organizations.  What else has your company done or might a company do in this arena?  Let’s begin a dialogue that inspires corporations to recruit the Class of 2009 and other Millennials by beefing up their philanthropic commitment.  Please share your thoughts below.

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