The Earth Day Rallying Cry

Employees are becoming more emboldened to pressure corporate leaders on climate and other social causes.

It was a call to act—a demand to address climate change. Earlier this month, some 4,500 Amazon employees signed a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos and the board of directors saying the firm has the resources and scale “to spark the world’s imagination and redefine what is possible.”

As Earth Day closes in on its half-century anniversary—April 22 marked the 49th Earth Day celebration—an unlikely group is ramping up pressure on corporate leaders to take proactive measures to protect the environment: employees. In recent years, employees have protested or petitioned a wide range of companies on their diversity practices, government defense work, gender pay, and more. Climate is now another one of those causes.

Kate Shattuck, co-leader of the Impact Investing practice at Korn Ferry, says both the frequency and intensity of these employee actions are increasing. “Employees are important stakeholders, and they want their work aligned with a higher purpose,” says Shattuck. “They are partners in an organization’s success, and they are commanding a voice and power in that partnership.”

In some cases, some of the change is happening because millennials now dominate the workforce at many firms. As a group, they tend to be a strong component of the “purpose” movement. In this regard, they are joining powerful investment managers like BlackRock and socially conscious consumers in prioritizing doing good as much as making money.

Of course, balancing social causes with profitable business practices isn’t always easy. “Corporations have a diversity of stakeholders to deal with,” says Divina Gamble, co-leader of Korn Ferry’s Nonprofit, Philanthropy and Social Enterprise practice. “They are being challenged in a way that they never have been before, because it is coming from all sides now.”

To some degree, the tension between profit and purpose has always existed in varying degrees among employees and the companies they work for. But now, with companies fighting a global war for talent, the stakes are much higher to balance the two. For employees, it is no longer enough to not cause harm to the environment—they want the companies they work for to proactively better it. Shattuck is quick to point out that it isn’t just millennials who feel this way. “All employees want their work aligned with their higher purpose.”

According to Gamble, organizations that ignore or minimize employee concerns about the environment will face real issues on the retention front. At the same time, however, leaders can’t simply adjust business practices to satisfy every issue. That’s why Gamble says leaders must take a strategic approach to their activities around social impact.

“Leaders need to engage employees and get votes and feedback to help figure out where to invest and what to prioritize in social impact that makes the most sense for their business,” she says.