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10 ways to retain ESG talent

Timely ideas for how to create a work experience with more connection, impact and human engagement.

Male hand of an employer holding magnifying glass choosing a Black candidate among many multiracial professional people.

Male hand of an employer holding magnifying glass choosing a Black candidate among many multiracial professional people. Image via Shutterstock/Fizkes

At GreenBiz 22 last month in Scottsdale, Arizona, the halls and conference rooms were abuzz: For many, it was our first in-person event in two years. How wonderful to reconnect with our colleagues and peers! What a marvel to see whole bodies — and professional work attire!

At the conference, I led a discussion on a topic that’s been top-of-mind for a lot of us: The Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffle in the sustainability profession. As an ESG recruiter, I can attest to the dynamic job market.

The war for ESG talent is real.

As I have written about before, we are witnessing sustainability professionals exploring new opportunities, interviewing at multiple places, multiple offers, competing offers and counteroffers. The trends have provoked fear among managers worried they’ll lose critical team members. But it has also prompted curiosity about how to create a work experience with more connection, impact and human engagement.

How can companies retain their ESG talent? Here’s my top 10 list:

  1. Focus on impact: According to McKinsey, many of the tens of millions of people who left their jobs as part of the Great Resignation were in search of a "renewed and revised sense of purpose." This is particularly relevant for sustainability professionals. We do this work because we want to make a difference. To be clear, salary is important (see below), but beyond that, employees want to know how their job will contribute to impact on issues that matter. Managers should take heed and talk with their team and prospective hires about what the company can do to best support them to make more of an impact.
  2. Show them the money: Traditionally candidates could expect a 5-10 percent boost in changing jobs; 20 percent was a big boost. Today I have witnessed candidates getting offers at 2x what they were earning previously. But remember that salary isn’t everything.
  3. Give them a better title: Moving up is a goal, whether from manager to director, director to vice president or vice president to chief sustainability officer. Companies that want to retain talent should create clear career pathways.
  4. Close the gap between employee and CEO: People want to be close to decision-making power — that’s where real impact can happen. My latest CSO research revealed that while CSOs are not quite as close as they once were to the CEO, nearly 70 percent of CSOs said they meet with their CEO fairly regularly. If it’s not possible to rejigger your org chart, consider organizing regular meetings that give your team leaders an audience with the CEO.
  5. Expand leadership opportunities: There are many ways for sustainability people to lead at a company: They can sit on the board’s sustainability council, take part in a leadership team focused on a particular issue (climate, innovation, future of work) or they can take the reins on discrete opportunities, such as a campaign to engage employees in the company’s sustainability initiatives.
  6. Keep it fresh: Work has become stale. Remote work can be lonely, coupled with no travel and limited in-person events. It’s human nature to seek newness. Managers should think about how to create growth opportunities and give employees a chance to build something new or explore a fresh idea of their own design.
  7. Create a culture of flexible work: During the pandemic, the savviest employers understood that work should flex around people’s lives — especially during a crisis. Now that employers are calling workers back to the office, employees are worried they may lose their freedom. Talk to your team about what kind of flexibility they need to achieve their personal and professional aspirations, whether it’s about where they work (remote work), when they work (flexible or reduced hours) or how they work (meeting-free days).
  8. Beef up your benefits: The pandemic highlighted the frailty of the U.S. social safety net. The U.S. government does not provide any kind of paid leave for sick time, caregiving time or just rest. Consider benefits that respond to employee needs outside of work. What do they need to live a better life? Some employers have increased mental health support, and others have increased support for caregivers, providing financial assistance for emergency childcare and giving paid time off for employees to look after children, elders or even a close friend in need.
  9. Cultivate deep inclusion: Employees need to feel a sense of belonging at work, but modern workplace structures and systems still marginalize certain groups, especially people of color. As I have written before, a lack of belonging is among the three main reasons people quit their jobs. Diversity in Sustainability, a network of diverse sustainability professionals, highlights barriers to belonging and what companies can do to help all employees feel safe bringing their whole self to work.
  10. Invest in your bosses: Managers have significant sway over their direct reports, yet a lot of managers fall into roles without proper training. Relationships at work matter, and if you want your employees to grow and learn, start by giving their boss the skills and strategies to be better managers.

There is a lot of movement in the ESG field, and I expect that to continue as teams expand and more companies integrate sustainability into core business strategies. This as an opportunity for companies to create better roles and experiences that help retain and attract talent.

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