On the whole, employers have tried about every trick in the book to find new talent in the past year.
Case studies exist for just about every facet of recruiting innovation: faster pay increases, better scheduling policies, enhanced leave, access to remote or hybrid work, educational opportunities and more. But one aspect of the job search that may fly under the radar is purpose. In other words, are employees able to do work that is meaningful to them?
This question may be of particular importance to younger workers. In 2019, an Olivet Nazarene University study of 2,024 people found 90% of millennial respondents said it was important that their work had a positive impact on the world. Half of all respondents in the same study said they would take less money to perform more meaningful work.
More recently, employers — at least outwardly — seem to recognize the trend's legitimacy. A Deloitte survey published earlier this year found that 79% of C-suite executives said organizational purpose supported recruitment, engagement and retention.
As a model for purpose-driven work, sustainability-focused companies may provide a guide for employers. The topic has grown increasingly important to candidates globally, according to 2021 research by the IBM Institute for Business Value. HR Dive spoke with HR leaders at two sustainability-focused technology businesses about their perspectives on purpose and its role in recruitment.
Offering what others can't
Pittsburgh-based recycling company RoadRunner Recycling is determined to shake up the practices of a stagnant industry.
"We've been doing the same thing in waste that we've been doing [for] years and years," said Sue Wingert, vice president of HR at RoadRunner. "This is an industry that is ripe for evolution and advancement."
With its technology, the company works with customers to develop improvements to recycling practices by, among other things, diverting a larger portion of waste away from disposal.
The external pitch to skilled candidates is "come here and help us give back to the Earth," Wingert said, and RoadRunner communicates its perspective on sustainability beyond job postings. The company publishes a newsletter touching on topics such as "wishful recycling," which describes consumers who toss nonrecyclable items into their bins in the hopes that they may be recycled anyway. In this way, RoadRunner is able to post jobs to a larger audience via the newsletter while directly speaking on aspects of its mission, Wingert said.
By focusing directly on candidates with a passion for sustainability and related topics, the company also may present something to talent that much larger firms can't.
"We get [candidates] to say, I want to be part of that," Wingert said. Competitors can offer name recognition, she continued, "but that's not good enough for some employees."
The promise of growth
Attractive employment propositions have to contend with market realities, however. With technology employees potentially ready to leave for new opportunities in droves, retention can be just as difficult as recruitment.
Sustainability-focused companies want skilled workers, but that does not necessarily mean that all hires need perfectly calibrated backgrounds. North Carolina-based electronics manufacturer Phononic, for example, focuses on finding talent with baseline competencies such as critical thinking, utilizing good judgment and having empathy, said Chief Human Resources Officer Jason Kranack.
Beyond those soft skills, innovation is also top of mind. "We want people who are sort of fearless about innovation," Kranack said. "You really need to have boundaryless thinking."
Kranack gave the example of a group of employees who found an alternative use for one of Phononic's cooling products, which had been marketed to convenience stores as a way to keep impulse items, like frozen ice cream bars, temperature controlled. The employees determined that the product might also have healthcare applications, such as keeping certain medications cool.
Training can fill in for more technical skills, but this too is dependent on having the right culture. Kranack said Phononic's product development process has helped cultivate an organizational environment characterized by shared learning. Employees take turns sending one another readings and baseline statistics on topics such as environmental, social and governance factors.
RoadRunner takes a similar approach toward job development, Wingert said. The company attempts to ensure each role has elements of purpose, mastery and economy. The second of these, mastery, is fleshed out by giving employees the chance to craft their own skill sets on the job and have control over their daily functions.
"That's what separates companies," Wingert continued. "People want to have those three things."
Autonomy and purpose have made the difference in recent months. Wingert said a candidate recently chose RoadRunner over two other higher paying offers from employers with greater name recognition. "He chose RoadRunner even if it wasn't the highest, because he thought he would have the opportunity to do what he loved."
Development efforts can help direct an employee to a promotion or new job title, but that isn't RoadRunner's sole aim in this regard, Wingert said. She added that one of the company's concerns is ensuring that talent development programs allow for both vertical and horizontal growth. Onboarding may address some aspects of the latter category, but RoadRunner is also investing in areas such as coachability and peer connectivity.
Sustainability-focused organizations need to work collaboratively to align employee interests and expectations around the company's mission, Luis Paiva, senior vice president of people, technology and operations at software engineering outsourcing firm BairesDev, told HR Dive in an email. Building this type of consensus can ensure staff have a shared mindset around caring for the environment through work, he noted.
"Beyond this approach, challenging employees with projects they are passionate about helps them go above and beyond expectations," Paiva said. "Employees' interests play an important role in developing 'green skills', and this can be supported with outside speakers and trainers as well as traditional internal training."
HR, know the company you're working for
Proximity to candidates also doesn't hurt organizational prospects. Phononic's location in North Carolina's Research Triangle area has provided access to science and technology talent from nearby institutions, Kranack said. RoadRunner's proximity to technology graduates from local universities in Pittsburgh has afforded similar opportunities, Wingert said, and the area's relative affordability is also a draw.
Competitors are savvy to the area's strengths, though, and because RoadRunner is still building its brand, Wingert said the company often does its recruiting via direct sourcing. But it's because of its purpose that companies like RoadRunner are able to find talent in spite of the competition, she continued.
"The biggest piece of it is to just know the company you're working for," Wingert said. "There sometimes can be a big difference between what the HR team believes the company is like and what the leadership team thinks the company is like. You need to ensure those two things are aligned."
Smaller enterprises that are still building out their products also may benefit from thinking through which types of candidates best fit their current stage of growth. "When you remove yourself from thinking that they have to have been there, done that from a resume perspective, and you focus on qualities and growth trajectories, it just opens up the funnel a lot more," Kranack said. "Bring in the most diverse and excited group of employees possible."
This can tie back into broader diversity and inclusion efforts. "To work with the best talent in the industry, no matter the specific skill set or industry, employers must commit to challenging biases about who drives innovation and progress in technology," Paiva said. "This starts very early with grassroots efforts to encourage traditionally underrepresented groups to get involved in tech."
All of these points come back to culture, Wingert said, which many companies may overlook when focusing on other recruiting minutiae. She said the first exercise that HR should undertake is to ask company leaders the following: "How would you describe your culture, and is that the way you want us to describe our culture?"