Using Sustainability Initiatives to Engage Young Professionals
Prioritizing Purpose for Generation Z and Millennials
By Rebekah Heath, PhD, CPA, CIA and Gail L. Yarick, PhD, CPA
Generation Z, like the millennial generation before it, is pessimistic about careers, life in general, and the world around it. However, it shares a deep concern for the environment and a desire to serve a higher purpose. Sustainability initiatives are a top priority for Gen Z. Nearly half (47%) want to make positive impacts on community and society (“The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019,” Deloitte, https://bit.ly/3CXGR9K) and truly think in terms of “sustainability.” Sustainability is similar to but not synonymous with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Sustainability seeks to balance resource usage with resource supply over time; it seeks to assure intergenerational equity (Tima Bansal and Mark DesJardine, “Don’t Confuse Sustainability with CSR,” Ivey Business Journal, January/February 2015, https://bit.ly/3mf5dFU). The visibility of Greta Thunberg and the street protests of schoolchildren across the world are evidence of the importance of environmental resources to Gen Z.
Gen Z, generally defined as individuals born in 1997 and afterward, is projected to make up 30% of the U.S. workforce by 2022. Gen Z has been called the “change generation” for its passion and desire to have a personal impact through its work (“Industry Report: 15 Critical Insights about Gen Z, Purpose and the Future of Work,” WeSpire, July 2018, https://bit.ly/3jVwgTO). Employers have made significant changes to the workplace in order to accommodate millennials; as Gen Z begins to enter the workforce, employers may again need to make accommodations. Fortunately, the two younger generations are very similar in their regard for sustainability issues (“The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019,” Deloitte, https://bit.ly/3CXGR9K). When asked about 20 challenges facing society, millennials and Gen Zers were most concerned with climate change, protecting the environment, and associated natural disasters.
About Millennials and Gen Zers
Older millennials were entering the workforce as the economic recession of the late 2000s was unfolding. As noted by the aforementioned 2019 Deloitte study, millennials have lower real incomes and fewer assets than previous generations at comparable ages, as well as higher levels of debt (Christopher Kurz, Geng Li, and Daniel J. Vine, “Are Millennials Different?,” Finance and Economics Discussion Series, Federal Reserve Board, 2018). The recession, along with dwindling public trust in institutions and a scientific consensus about the threat of global climate change, increased expectations from a wide range of corporate stakeholders about the role businesses should play in society. Yet these expanded expectations for business are seemingly even greater among the younger generations who overwhelmingly believe companies’ missions should go beyond profit and include making a positive difference in the world. In 2018, 83% of millennials (“2018 Edelman Trust Barometer: The State of Trust in Business,” Edelman, January 2018, https://bit.ly/3k1Zel7) believed that business success should be measured by more than financial performance alone. These beliefs are not just sentiments. Millennials are ready to act upon them; 40% of millennials surveyed said they have taken one job offer over another because of a company’s sustainability, and 70% said it would impact their decision to stay with a company for the long haul (Riia O’Donnell, “Green companies make the greenest pastures, report says,” HRDive, February 2019, https://bit.ly/3mcL82T). Millennials have unfairly earned the reputation of being job hoppers. A recent Pew Research Center study found that millennials aren’t switching jobs any more frequently than Gen Xers (Kathryn Dill, “Millennials Show Loyalty to Employers,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2020, https://on.wsj.com/2W7hUrA).
Unfortunately, millennials are not as engaged at work as are previous generations (e.g., Gallup, Inc., “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” 2016, http://bit.ly/2xFXwwp). A 2017 survey (Hilda Carrillo, Joseph F. Castellano, and Timothy M. Keune, “Employee Engagement in Public Accounting firms: Getting Millennial Staff Excited about the Work Environment,” The CPA Journal, December 2017, https://bit.ly/2XEN0HP) found that only 39% of millennials working in public accounting are engaged at work, compared with 55% of older respondents. This difference was driven by responses to two survey items, “When at work, I am completely focused on my job duty” and “I get excited about going to work.” Responses to the first item may be attributed to the prevalence of digital distractions in today’s work environment and the associated need for effort on the part of young professionals to focus on the task at hand. “Lack of excitement,” however, clearly relates to the issue of engagement.
Millennials want to perform well, but they express a lack of energy and enthusiasm for their jobs (Carrillo et al., 2017). Millennials have a deep desire to do work that benefits society and they may gain enthusiasm for their work if they appreciate the firm’s larger purpose. Carrillo et al. recommend that “partners and managers frequently remind staff members of their role in society—such as serving society by protecting capital markets and ensuring taxpayers pay their fair share in order to fund important governmental services.” These are noble goals for accountants, but the passion of millennials and Gen Z for society and the environment offer a unique opportunity for employers to achieve goal congruence with their young employees by engaging them in sustainability activities.
Although both of these younger generations value meaningful work, Gen Z is the first generation to prioritize purpose over salary (Susan Hunt Stevens, “5 things to know about Gen Z employees and sustainability,” GreenBiz, October 2018, https://bit.ly/3xTMdyP). Gen Zers strongly believe that their job needs to have social impact, as opposed to just giving back through extracurricular volunteering and monetary giving. They report wanting to be advocates for a cause, not just volunteers. Gen Zers expect open conversations around business strategy and decisions including bad news, and they expect their opinions to matter (WeSpire, 2018). Deloitte suggests that “employers open a dialogue with their millennial and Gen Z employees, listen to their concerns, and strive to understand why certain issues really matter to them.”
Both Gen Zers and millennials agree that working for a company that believes in being a “good” employer is a top sustainability issue they care about (“New Cone Communications Research Confirms Millennials as America’s Most Ardent CSR Supports,” Cone Communications, September 2015, https://bit.ly/3xTN1Un). Gen Zers especially want pride in their organization. This generation reads mission and values statements when choosing where to work, and it wants its employer’s values to match its values. In the words of a Gen Z undergraduate student, “I cannot wait until I graduate from college and can help the company that I work for become environmentally friendly.”
Both Gen Zers and millennials demand evidence that their employers are going beyond the minimum levels of environmental compliance by embracing all things green. Gen Z expects the same sleek, modern workplaces desired by millennials—workplaces that incorporate green practices such as recycling bins, water-saving devices, standby features on all electrical equipment, shared printers in the office, and solar panels on site (Ariel Schwartz, “Gen Y Wants Sustainability Front and Center in Their Sleek, Modern Workplaces,” Fast Company, May 2010, https://bit.ly/3AUWuNp). Indeed, something as minor as recycling aluminum cans and banning single-use paper/plastic/styrofoam in the office is meaningful to millennials and Gen Zers.
Equality is also a top cause for Gen Z. According to one study, 72% believe racial equality is the most important issue of the day (“Industry Report: 15 Critical Insights about Gen Z, Purpose and the Future of Work,” WeSpire, July 2018, https://bit.ly/3jVwgTO). A Deloitte study found that younger generations define diversity and inclusion differently than older generations (“The Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion,” Deloitte, July 3, 2017, http://bit.ly/2NM2gtx). Millennials think of diversity and inclusion as expanding participation to employees of different races, personalities, sexual preferences, and perspectives. Older workers think of diversity in terms of demographic categories such as age, race, and gender.
How to Engage Gen Zers and Millennials
Involve them in sustainability initiatives.
In order to better engage the younger generations of professionals, it is critical for organizations to continue to define their purpose beyond profit and to clarify and to communicate how individual roles contribute to that impact. Philanthropic efforts that enhance social equity should be incorporated into an organization’s culture and mission. Executives should “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” For example, millennials working in the healthcare industry who perceived that their employers were truly and genuinely interested in corporate social responsibility efforts reported being more engaged at work (David Firely, Retaining Generation Y: A Study of the Relationship Between Corporate Social Responsibility and Millennial Engagement in the Healthcare Industry, Capella Universities, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016).
A sustainability expert employed at an Accounting Today “Best Accounting Firms to Work For” discussed how his firm set expectations and provided infrastructure to support young professionals in sustainability initiatives: “All of our team members have a community engagement expectation that is communicated in our firm manual by level and is part of their annual evaluation process.” Another expert reported having implemented a “NextGen Council, comprised of the next generation of firm leadership, which implemented a Volunteer Club, which thrives on philanthropic endeavors” (Linda M. Saddlemire, “Common Community Engagement Strategies Used by U.S. Small and Midsized Public Accounting Firms,” University of LaVerne, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2015). Similarly, young professionals should appreciate the opportunity to serve on a firm’s diversity task force; such a task force might look at diversity within the company and its individual business units and recommend areas for improvement (Stephen R. Goldberg, Lara L. Kessler, and Merribeth Govern, “Fostering Diversity and Inclusion in the Accounting Workplace: Benefits, Challenges, and Strategies,” The CPA Journal, December 2019).
Employers must understand the concerns of millennials and Gen Z in order to continue efforts to build firm cultures that attract and engage younger employees.
It has been suggested that the younger generation can be empowered through personal development (Carrillo et al., 2017). Gallup reports that millennials crave development opportunities (Gallup, “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” https://bit.ly/3spnX6P). Accounting firms benefit by encouraging young professionals to learn about sustainability issues as well as the business world’s approach to more comprehensive reporting—the integrated report. Whether firms utilize the new Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Standards or one of the integrated reporting frameworks, young professionals must be able to understand, report on, and interpret the meaning of sustainability initiatives (Sean Stein Smith, “How young CPAs can find opportunities in sustainability,” https://bit.ly/3ge34Xn). After carefully examining the SASB standards that apply to the transportation sector, one Gen Zer commented, “While there were of course topics regarding the environment, I was very surprised to see how many of the industries had fair labor practices, competitive behavior among competitors, safety management, supply chain management, and even business ethics. These topics were not at all what I was expecting the standards to cover, but seeing that SASB is striving to make the transportation sector sustainable in numerous ways, not just environmentally, was very impressive to me.”
Firms should encourage young professionals to look for professional development opportunities in the sustainability area. For example, the AICPA offers an online 1.5-hour CPE course on integrated reporting as well as an online self-study certificate program on the fundamentals of integrated reporting (13.5 hours). In addition to regular CPE training, professional development might entail periodically giving younger employees a few hours to do what they feel is important. For example, time may be used to research a sustainability topic they find particularly interesting or to perform community service that aligns with the firm’s core values. This practice will not only ease the burden of the time pressure associated with billable hours—which the younger generations feel more strongly than the older generations—it will also allow them to discover new interests and empower them to better serve clients (Carrillo et al., 2017). Enabling young professionals to find and act upon their passions will increase their engagement levels at work.
A Brighter Future
Millennials and Gen Zers make up more than half the world’s population and, together, account for most of the global workforce (Deloitte, 2019). The younger generations worry about excessive student loan debt, social and racial inequities, and the planet. These young professionals are willing to work hard, but they demand that their employers care about those things that matter to them. Employers must understand the concerns of millennials and Gen Z in order to continue efforts to build firm cultures that attract and engage younger employees. Employers cannot just ask young CPAs to volunteer at a community engagement event; they must ask them to find their passion and support them as they work to make a difference in the world. Employers can help young professionals find their passion through a choice of professional development opportunities. Steering young employees towards integrated reporting and sustainability initiatives will give them purpose and increase their ability to add value to the firm. Deloitte summed it up best: “Those who can make the future brighter for Millennials and Gen Zs stand to have the brightest futures themselves” (Deloitte, 2019).
Rebekah Heath, PhD, CPA, CIA, is a teaching professor at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.
Gail L. Yarick, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor at the Kelce College of Business, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, Kan.
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