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Yes, ESG is the answer to your hiring troubles

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

It’s no secret that this is one of the toughest hiring environments for businesses in a generation.

When 80% of leaders report that they are struggling to find the right people, across all sectors and scales, we need to ask what is going on – and what we can do about it. Does sustainability have a role to play? 

Great Resignation or talent shortage?

The first step is to stop blaming the pandemic. The Great Resignation was a powerful explanatory frame for a while – even if it does have a penchant for changing outfits halfway through the party. But as Covid fades into memory, our feverish labour markets remain the one symptom we still can’t shift. 

Instead, we must face the underlying secular trends that are shaping our future. For all the talk about robots coming to take our jobs, the demographic reality is that we are facing a talent shortage of 85 million skilled workers by 2030. That’s equivalent to over half of the US labour force today. Good luck papering over those gaps with ChatGPT. 

As this talent pool shrinks, it will also undergo radical compositional changes. By 2030, millennials and Gen-Z will make up around two-thirds of the workforce, centering a very different set of values and priorities in the process. So if what you’re offering isn’t attracting young people today, it won’t work for anyone in ten years’ time. Instead, we have an opportunity to transform hiring into something much, much better.

What gets us out of bed anyway?

At the heart of this issue is a reconsideration of what motivates us. For a long time, businesses believed (with a little help from economics textbooks) that it was all just about money. Need better hires? Make the numbers go up. 

That no longer really works, if it ever did. Today, the secret to finding the right people is something much more important: purpose. To illustrate this, let me tell you a brief story. I met a young man – let’s call him Marcus – for whom work was a means to an end. He did occasional jobs to pay the bills.

We met when he was cleaning the building I was in, and after a while, we began talking about climate change. Suddenly Marcus lit up because the climate was his passion too. We fell into the first of many deep and brilliant conversations, and I could see how intelligent and knowledgeable he truly was.

Speaking to Marcus on this level, I discovered the authenticity of his purpose – and he got a sense of mine. So when I mentioned that I was on the lookout for someone to fill a policy and research role at my own renewables company, it was as though the match had already been made. He has proven to be a fantastic member of the team: driven, curious, and devoted to the mission. Without that shared purpose, we would never have truly met. 

Searching for alignment

Marcus’ story is not an isolated one. Survey after survey is finding that purpose matters more than ever in attracting talented people, particularly amongst younger generations. One report found that 42% of Gen-Z workers would prioritise purpose over pay for their next role, versus just 38% who want more money.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Psychologists have been telling us for years that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation. What has changed is the landscape itself; as the ESG revolution gathers pace, it suddenly seems realistic for people to demand impact and have businesses listen. 

That said, there’s no free lunch here; if you want to lead with a mission, it needs to be authentic. Hiring is about the personal connection, and ESG folk are savvy enough, after years of greenwash, to tell the difference. But if you can make that connection real, you solve more than one problem. People who feel aligned at work are more productive and innovative, and tend to stick around too - and the best recruitment measure of all is retention. 

Purpose-first hiring: how to do it

If you want to try purpose-first hiring, start by getting clear on what your company’s purpose actually is. ESG is a huge tent, so it pays to get specific as well as authentic (but that is the subject of another article entirely!)

In terms of the hiring process, start by listening to what your employees and applicants are telling you about themselves – and how they see you. Do you have the culture and mechanisms to empower people to share their intrinsic motivations? Finding the right fit must always be a dialogue. 

Next, bring your most passionate advocates for the company mission into the hiring process. They may be best placed to articulate your culture to potential hires and to assess them for compatibility. 

Finally, make the recruitment journey as human as possible. AI screening, online assessments and remote interviewing are all very well, but it’s a face-to-face conversation that reveals true character.

Get the purpose right, and you’ll find your colleagues become allies – and hiring becomes human again. Go find your tribe.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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