Angela R. Howard is an organizational psychologist and culture impact strategist who helps organizations create healthy workplace cultures that people want to be a part of. Her podcast, Social Responsibility at Work, is an actionable space for extraordinary humans to mold human-centric workplaces and change the world.
The steam plumes from your teapot signal the water is almost boiling. Decades of conversation on corporate responsibility, diversity and inclusion, ESG, and social justice have been increasing the heat. Passion around climate change, corporate culture, and the mental health crisis at work have also contributed greatly. Some companies quickly felt the rising temperature from the media and employees and took action. For a select few, their work had already begun, driven by a larger sense of responsibility. But many companies continue to simmer in the heat, delaying action until their hand is forced.
Employers have more power and more responsibility
The delicacy of life and livelihoods has put a massive spotlight on dusty, deteriorating social systems that don’t support a life we see as sustainable post-pandemic. Increasing the heat for employers is the information economy—fueled by social media and aimed at pulling back the curtain on corporate responsibility reports, performative media appearances, and mismatched words and actions. In my work to help organizations define and operationalize their workplace cultures, I’ve watched leaders flooded with questions and demands to state their commitment and take action.
The sauna-like temperatures that existed pre-pandemic should now be unbearable for most companies. The pressure to attract and retain employees, manage the turnover from the Great Resignation, and calls for accountability for toxic culture are not only heating up—they’re now a top five predictor of attrition, according to MIT. The water is rapidly boiling, and the teapot whistles loudly as emerging generations continue to turn the stove dials.
In a recent global 2022 Gen Z and millennial survey by Deloitte, nearly two in five Zoomers and millennials say they have turned down a job or work because it did not align with their values. Those who are satisfied with their employers’ stance and contribution on issues around social justice, environmental impact, and their efforts to create a diverse and inclusive culture were more likely to want to stay with their employer longer than five years.
In contrast, according to Deloitte (pdf), only 18% of Gen Zs and 16% of millennials believe their employers are strongly committed to fighting climate change, for example. We’re experiencing a considerable disconnect, a societal cognitive dissonance, around what employees want and need and what employers have been accustomed to providing.
For many, covid was a reckoner for re-thinking mortality; for others, it was a starting point for one existential crisis after another. But the pandemic also provided purview into the systems and institutions we trust the most for information and leadership. For example, the government and media (which could be serving as unifying sources in society) took a beating and now lean toward divisiveness.
Employers over government when it comes to trust
According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer report (pdf), government and media are now viewed as the strongest contributors to division compared to business and NGOs. What does this mean for business, organizations, and the world of work?
While trust and confidence in the government and media’s ability to unify society go down, NGOs and businesses are now feeling the heat to leverage their platform to take on societal problems—perhaps even beyond their abilities or willingness. Our trust in information from our employer is now greater than our trust in information from the government, which turns up the heat for employers even more.
Questions abound: how should we be preparing for this shift? Do businesses need to focus on social justice, environmental impact, and efforts to create a diverse and inclusive culture? Will there be an expectation to have a company stance around social issues versus being neutral? Will the world of work and leadership need to change as we know it?
Yes, to them all. And…
Our next question, especially if you’re still in the teapot, is how we get out and catch up. Post-pandemic, employees outranked customers (pdf) as the most important stakeholders for a business achieving long-term success. Shared impact builds employees’ trust in their employer. With today’s employee demands for action, companies should double down on their social impact. They can be a unifying force for change to help cool the boiling waters of discontent and provide tolerable and thriving environments for their most important resource—their people.