Sustainability: Taking a responsible view to improve employer brand and staff retention

Today’s graduates are all too aware of the global threats facing our planet – from climate change to disease to terrorism. They expect and want to enter a world of work committed to acting responsibly, to minimising the impact their company can have on the environment and to ‘giving something back’.

Nick Horslen, an entrepreneur and business mentor working with small- and medium-sized businesses, says sustainable development – the ability to reduce a company’s carbon footprint – is one of the first things graduates look for when choosing an employer.

“The issue of ‘sustainability’ is of far greater significance to graduates and other new recruits than it was 10 years ago. It’s much more on their radar,” he says.

Horslen works with business start-ups on the South East England Regional Development Agency (SEEDA) programme, to help them grow sustainably and boost regional regeneration. The programme is linked to Henley Management College’s established business accelerator course, designed to develop a long-term approach to continuous development (see box, right, for details of Henley’s new Leading for Sustainability course).

A quick glance at a recent BT survey of 120 young professionals shows corporate social responsibility – including sustainability – is more important to them than salary, according to one-third of participants. “Young people want to help define a new economy. Delivering sustainable economies is high up on that agenda,” says Horslen. So it makes clear business sense, especially in recruitment and retention terms, for employers to create and implement an active sustainability policy.

Making it happen

Tim Fenn, managing director of construction firm Oakwood Builders, and member of the SEEDA and Henley business accelerator programmes, has noticed a concrete link between having an active sustainability policy and being able to attract and retain the best staff.

He explains that being proactive in sustainability gives Oakwood clear competitive advantage, and even enables the company to attract people at lower salaries than they may expect from larger employers.

“We can get people in who are prepared to accept less money to come and join us, even at a senior level, because we offer something different to our competitors,” says Fenn. “One of our directors took a £60,000 pay cut, and a middle manager took a £30,000 reduction. It’s because new recruits see sustainability as a growing area, and we offer a package for staff to take advantage of this.”

Oakwood is the first construction company in England to attempt building zero-carbon houses, years ahead of expected legislation in 2016, which will make such building compulsory. Fenn knows this aim is critical in making his business stand out from the rest in a crowded market. But from an HR perspective, he says he must take his employees with him through training and continuous development to truly succeed.

“To achieve our vision, we needed to develop a major new training ethos within the company. Over the last seven years, we have had a massive training budget of £70,000 compared with a £2m turnover. We wanted everyone to have a training programme, from labourers to production, which included basic craft and IT skills.”

Fenn explains that once all 55 members of staff have gone through the basic training programme, each then has a budget of £500 to train specifically in eco-build.

“Decorators have been practising with eco paint, joinery managers have attended courses about sustainable timbers, and plumbers have looked at solar panels,” he says. “Because of these eco-friendly training policies, we are more able to attract the right people.”

Fenn also claims the strong training ethos has helped staff retention. “We keep our people because we’re so strong in what we do. Our goal is for all labourers on site to have knowledge of wind turbines, solar panelling and so on, so the whole organisation becomes environmentally aware and included.”

Employer branding

Horslen admits, however, there is a risk that employers could be paying lip service to reducing climate change as it is, as he puts it, a “currently fashionable” issue.

“There’s a danger the message to reduce your carbon footprint gets spun out heavily in different ways, and that it will go through hype cycles, where everyone jumps on the bandwagon then all of a sudden fatigue sets in,” he warns.

“But if employers were ever in any doubt as to why having a sustainability policy is important to them, they will soon realise this is all about reputation.”

Horslen believes it is too risky for employers to ignore sustainability issues in the long term, as doing so could damage positive word-of-mouth for their company’s brand.

Solitaire Townsend, managing director of sustainable development communications agency Futerra, works with high-profile businesses and government departments to introduce ‘green’ into corporate branding.

“Companies know that having an active sustainability policy acts as a differentiator, a competitive advantage,” she says. “Graduates and new recruits expect a certain amount of sustainability, and if you are a bright individual with several offers of similar money, undoubtedly you will choose the company that is more socially responsible.

“Branding is crucial – now employers know future employees are interested in this, they want to shout about it, and make it absolutely clear they hold the differentiator,” she adds.

Telecoms giant BT has experienced a positive impact from having sustainability as part of the company ethos and branding.

Donna Young, BT head of climate change, says having an active sustainability policy has helped attract the best staff, motivate and retain them.

“There is hard evidence that being active on sustainability helps to attract graduates.” Young cites an experience at a recruitment fair last year, where she changed graduates’ perception of BT simply by explaining the company’s climate change agenda to them.

“When I started talking to students about what BT does – the climate change agenda, our inclusive policy, sustainability policies and so on – they became much more animated and interested in us, rather than thinking of us as a ‘phone company’,” she says. “BT became instantly more attractive, and we realised we need to promote these factors to attract more talent.”

In January, Young introduced a company target of engaging 20% of staff worldwide in sustainability issues by 2012. She set up various methods to help staff become involved in green issues, including ‘Carbon Clubs’ for small groups of individuals to get together and work out ways to reduce either BT’s or their own carbon footprint.

Other initiatives included 7,000 staff and stakeholders making a ‘pledge’ on the company website to get greener, and inviting staff to enter competitions to creatively communicate how individuals can take action against climate change.

Young is confident that getting staff together in a structured way to reduce BT’s carbon output will save more money than the £1.3m invested worldwide by the company into employee engagement.

Young is happy to divulge her secret for making sustainability a success: “Rather than go through normal training packages and corporate stuff that turns people off, everything we want to do to engage staff must be fun. Only then will people want to get involved.”

Surely a strategy most companies can agree with.


Henley Management College is launching a new programme to help key decision makers in business, government and not-for-profit organisations learn how to transform their business to achieve sustainability for competitive advantage.

The course is designed for managing directors, directors and senior managers with responsibility for HR, strategy, operations, logistics, marketing, finance or corporate responsibility.

Programme content

  • All change: an introduction to the sustainable business paradigm – how your carbon footprint impacts on time/money/profitability decisions.
  • Challenging your view of the business you are in.
  • The change process for you and your organisation.
  • Taking a creative and future-focused approach to change.
  • Achieving sustainability for competitive advantage.
  • Developing your own project.


  • Three days


  • 4-6 December 2007, 9-11 April 2008, 19-21 May 2008, and 12-14 November 2008. Six to eight weeks after each course there will be an optional review day. Check for the latest information.


  • £5,000 (£5,800 with review day).

Top tips

  • Ten ways to get employees involved in sustainable development:
  • Build incentives for addressing sustainability at work into appraisals
  • Invite staff to suggest ‘green’ solutions for the organisation
  • Introduce employee/team scorecards on sustainability – give out prizes for employee or team of the month
  • Set up forums for staff to discuss ideas for going greener, at work and at home
  • Hold a corporate social responsibility roadshow, with environmental stands and speeches on green matters
  • Team up with carbon offset firms or green holiday companies to offer discounts to staff
  • Design intranet games and quizzes on sustainability: what can employees do to help their company go green?
  • Offer a carbon loyalty card – staff can build up points on the intranet for all the climate-friendly choices they make and then get entered into competitions
  • Provide online training on climate change
  • Ask employees to share ‘green solutions’ with friends and families.

Source: Donna Young, head of climate change, BT, and Solitaire Townsend, managing director, Futerra

Win a place on Henley’s course

Henley Management College is offering one lucky reader the chance to win a free place on its December course (see above). Simply e-mail with 100 words on why sustainability is a key business issue for the future and why the programme will benefit you and your organisation. The deadline is close of play Thursday 22 November. Entrants must be available from 4pm on 3 December to 4pm on 6 December (it’s a residential programme), with the project review day on 1 February 2008.

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