Sustainable Employment: Friend or Foe How Can We Tell?

Sustainable Employment: Friend or Foe How Can We Tell?

Imagine this. You are a graduate, fresh out of college, with all your degrees in hand, a killer CV, an attitude more positive than ever and you have your first interview for a real job, no internships ever again. The interview is going very well and suddenly, your potential boss asks you ‘’how do you feel about sustainable employment?’’. This scenario can work vice versa too, with the potential employee asking the interviewer ‘’do you practice sustainable employment?’’. It has happened, and quite recently to one of my coachees, and she had no answer.

So what is Sustainable Employment and why is it so trending?

What is Sustainable Employment?

We define it as: An enduring, mutually-beneficial, and purposeful working engagement between employer and employee.

It involves a flexible, adaptive relationship where both parties’ needs are clearly-defined, balanced and accommodated. Under this new model of workplace relationship, sustainability is key, and is evident throughout the employment lifespan, from start to finish, hiring to firing. At a minimum, Sustainable Employment meets the following needs, for both employer and employee, including Mutual benefit, Clarity and Fairness, Respect, Collaboration and Purpose. It is the way to enable a reciprocal, respectful workplace culture in which employer and employee can commit to each other, succeed and find meaning in their work.

The sustainability factors

There are several factors that determine whether a business or an employee is applying sustainable business techniques according to the principles to achieve development. These include:

  • Stakeholder engagement: Organizations can learn from customers, employees and their surrounding community. Engagement is not only about pushing out messages, but understanding opposition, finding common ground and involving stakeholders in joint decision-making; According to the Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index, which each year surveys employees about their level of job satisfaction, the most important way to engage workers is to enable them to make progress in meaningful work. They found that organizations that do this successfully have 3.9 times the earning per share growth compared to organizations with lesser engagement in the same industry.
  • Environmental management systems: These systems provide the structures and processes that help embed environmental efficiency into a firm’s culture and mitigate risks.
  • Reporting and disclosure: Measurement and control are at the heart of instituting sustainable practices. Not only can organizations collect and collate the information, they can also be entirely transparent with outsiders.
  • Life cycle analysis: Those organizations wanting to take a large leap forward should systematically analyze the environmental and social impact of the products they use and produce through life cycle analysis, which measure more accurately impacts.

Firms that are sustainable have been shown to attract and retain employees more easily and experience less financial and reputation risk. These firms are also more innovative and adaptive to their environments.

Benefits of Sustainable Employment

Judging from the elements that consist of sustainable employment, we understand that the resulting benefits from practicing are quite important and significant. They can be categorized and analyzed, varying from the employees’ engagement to financial issues.

License to Operate (Speed to Market)

In business, the adage time is money takes on new meaning. Every delay, whether it be in permitting, recruiting or training employees has an associated cost in lost revenue, particularly in a competitive situation when the preferred company can use the time advantage to establish itself in the market, pick the talented employees and build relationships with customers and suppliers. The community does not realize the benefits of having those goods or services available, workers are denied employment, and the community cannot collect sales and income taxes.

A company that has a positive reputation has a competitive advantage. While communities may not actively facilitate approval of a permit, myriad of examples exist where community opposition has resulted in substantial delays and requiring a greater investment of time and money. This is a lesson that some sometimes more clearly demonstrated by its failure. Sustainability programs that position the company as a positive corporate citizen can impact the speed which the company enters or grows within a market.

Cost Reduction or Avoidance

Most businesses know the importance of investing in preventive maintenance to keep equipment in good working order. In fact, these expenses are not considered optional. Those who do not invest in this manner are considered foolish and viewed with contempt. But there are other, direct ways that businesses can save money through a longer-term approach.

Market Opportunity/Advantage

Brand reputation or goodwill is arguably the most valuable asset a company has over the long term. Socrates said that the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear. In other words, people judge based on the impact of actions, and not intentions. It is unlikely that anyone (individual or company) can truly achieve perfection. When outlying behavior or actions take place, they are more likely to be viewed as aberrations rather than symptomatic of a greater and negative truth.

The lessons for corporations are clearly transferable. A company that is viewed as a positive and favorable member of the community is likely to have less opposition, and when -as is almost inevitable a misstep does occur, it is less likely to be perceived negatively. Like any other business expense, a clear case can be made that reputational capital, is an investment, built over time and as a long-term strategy.

Employee Engagement

One of the often-overlooked stakeholder groups is a companys employees. Beyond the feel good aspect that is often cited as one of the softer (less business focused) benefits of sustainability, employee morale and culture are linked to productivity, recruitment and retention. While many companies talk about how their employees are their most valuable assets but those that consider employees as integral partners in the organizations future and success recognize the power of true employee engagement. Employees who are passionate about the company and its products are the best advocates and can counteract threats to brand image simply by talking to their neighbors and friends. A failure to consider employees as vital in the organizations overall success can compromise a companys competitive position.

This failure to include employees results in behavior that can damage profitability directly. Poor morale can lead to passive sabotage in the form of reduced productivity, shoddy workmanship and quality control and increased absenteeism. Unhappy employees can and do engage in behavior that deliberately hurts the company, such as an employee who shares information about a corporate problem. This can result in damage to corporate image, credibility and the bottom line ranging from lost sales to increased costs due to fines and penalties.

Ability to Seize the Innovation High Ground

Companies that are looking for ways to be more environmentally, socially and economically responsible are driving innovations in products, services and sourcing as well as financial acumen. Companies that are seen as innovative tend to attract innovative employees, and the cycle accelerates. And that is good for business.

In the area of reputation and brand management, companies that source their products from supplier that engage in sustainable business practices are protected from damage to their brand and reputation while helping prevent these practices by providing a financial incentive -their business for acting in a socially responsible manner.

The cons of sustainability employment

On the other hand, skeptics have been expressing their negative opinions towards sustainability employment and are suggesting converting it to another form of strategic planning or development. After thorough research and case studies’ reading, we came up with the following cons:

  • Weak goals. Having weak goals for sustainability policies in general, and for the organization as a whole is a potion for disaster. The report must be built around strong organizational goals.
  • Disordered priorities. A good company will prioritize sustainability by weighting it equally to financial, environmental and societal performance the Triple Bottom Line instead of just focusing on financial performance.
  • Breaking the rules. The sustainability employment plan should follow good guidelines for sustainability reporting, such as those set by the Global Reporting Initiative.
  • Tenuous comparisons. State how your sustainability efforts compare to those of your industry peers, as opposed to presenting results based on your own internal benchmarks.
  • Unreachable targets. The stakeholders involved should make the sustainability goals relevant and achievable, and in line with the overall company goals.
  • Underreporting. Communicating sustainability performance across multiple media, in addition to any additional reports is vital.
  • Thinking short-term. Dont turn down a sustainable opportunity simply because it has a higher price tag or longer payback period. Results will pay off in the end.
  • Inadvertent greenwashing. Results should be meaningful and truthful, with noted areas for self-improvement. While reporting company progress is a key component of the shift to more sustainable models, if all results are completely positive, customers and stakeholders may become skeptical.

The fact remains that as new employees will join your company and others will retire or change positions or offer all they have in one spot, you will need to seek ways to continue the engagement, the effective communication and the openness to new ideas. Thus new talent will be attracted to your company delivering positive returns.

The future of Sustainable Employment. Will we all eventually apply it?

The year 2014 was the tilting point for many companies, assessing their damages from the economic crisis, handling the losses of the stock market and scanning the business field for something new that can shift the profile of their employees, of their company, provide more corporate options and presenting a more ‘’green-friendly’’ profile to their stakeholders. The future of sustainable employment can be summed up in three key points, as mentioned by Ellen Weinreb (

All employees will help deliver sustainability

For businesses, demonstrating earnestness in sustainability will be essential in 2016. It has been established that consumers prefer to do business with responsible organizations while the need to attract competitive employees has also added pressure for companies to broadly integrate sustainability into their operations.

Millennials want to see how their work connects with the greater good. The 2014 Deloitte Millennial Survey emphasizes the generation’s eagerness to make positive contributions to society and to work for ethical organizations. “To attract and retain talent business needs to show millennials it is in tune with their worldview,” the survey concludes. Millennials’ bargaining power means that employers will need to ensure that every job function is creating value for the world, not just for the company.

Sustainability officers will join the C-suite

Placing a C-level executive at the helm of corporate sustainability efforts is a highly visible indicator of commitment to responsible business.

The case for executive-level involvement is clear. Naming a CSO, sends a strong message, both internally and externally, that a company is serious about building excellence in the CSR area”. Internally, hiring a CSO leads companies to build out its sustainability program from a separate, isolated effort to a central and innovative platform that touches all functions and employees.

The independent economy will reach sustainability professionals

The convergence of several key factors birthed the independent economy: a sluggish job market, a new generation’s appetite for innovation, technological advancements and cultural shifts. Indeed, as Sara Horowitz wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “almost half of millennials prioritize job flexibility over pay”.

Now that the independent economy is well-established and rapidly ballooning, it’s only a matter of time before it impacts sustainability professionals.

About the author


Maria Zarotiadou

Maria Zarotiadou is a Gender Business Coach focusing on gender equality, sustainable employees and coaching to a better career.

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