Building An Engaged Workforce By Putting Social Issues Front And Center

Want to attract and retain top young talent? You have to prioritize working to make a positive impact, not just to the bottom line but to the world.

Millennials and “Zoomers” (members of Generation Z) care far more than previous generations did about making an impact on issues that matter to them. This might have something to do with the fact that they grew up with the internet and had access to boundless information about the inequalities in the world. This also might be because so many of the problems we face—climate change, lack of sustainability, deteriorating infrastructure—will affect them the most. These generations know well the ills of the world, and they want to do their part to fix them. Even though we’ve made significant improvements in many areas, such as reducing poverty and improving health, there’s more information and visibility than ever before on the significant opportunities in front of us to do more.

Because of all this, if a company wants to attract and retain top young talent, it must emphasize what it stands for by operating in complete alignment with its values, and prioritize working to make a positive impact, not just to its bottom line but to the world.

The days where the ends (even the best-intentioned ones) justified the means are over. To demonstrate what you stand for through action, you must put social issues on the agenda, empower employees to build partnerships with communities, and organize company engagement to take meaningful, measurable action.

Put Social Issues on the Agenda

In the aftermath of the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter protests, several large companies released statements and ads touting their commitment to social justice. While these statements represented a great first step, raised awareness and showed solidarity, they alone do little to change the material reality of disadvantaged populations. To publish an ad and not back it up with action will only hurt a company’s image over time. For a company to truly align with its values, it needs to work toward real change. Not only will this make a positive impact, but it will also foster goodwill and trust with customers and the general public. On the other hand, the public will hold companies accountable for any failure to live up to its stated ideals.

One simple, yet profound, change that you can make to ensure that your company puts its values into action and strives toward real progress is to add social impact to whatever scorecard or framework you use to evaluate success. I did that when I founded our consulting firm, SUMMi7, by adding social impact to a framework we use called the Balanced Scorecard. This is the method that guides our entire agenda. It’s how we set goals, how we develop our long-term strategy, and how we decide what our next move will be. With social impact now on our scorecard, we consider every potential decision through the lens of how it will impact the community. We can avoid choices that might do harm, and steer toward partnerships, decisions and investments that will improve overall quality of life. And, because we discuss our scorecard in nearly every meeting, our social impact is now part of our daily conversations. This constant focus has a multiplier effect on the amount of good we can do, as we continuously think of new ways to make a difference.

Empower Employees to Build Partnerships

The engaged, passionate workers of the twenty-first century can act as potent agents of change. All the company has to do is support them. One of the most effective ways to do this is to provide the infrastructure and funding to affinity/interest groups that employees can use to coordinate action, both internally and externally.

When I was CEO of Aviall, we had affinity groups for Black, Asian American, and LGBTQ communities, among others. Many of my colleagues cited these groups as their most cherished sources of support and as the conduits that helped them contribute the most to society. This makes sense—each affinity group celebrates a specific part of an employee’s identity, and gives them an outlet to engage in meaningful work within those communities. With this support, people feel comfortable showing up in a more authentic way. They don’t feel like they need to hide aspects of their identity. They understand that the company they work for cares about the same communities they do. Few things fuel performance as much as a sense of belonging and the freedom to show up authentically, and there are few motivators more powerful than a deep connection to purpose and meaning.

These affinity groups also support an inclusive atmosphere. The Black affinity group isn’t just open to African American employees, nor is the LGBTQ group open only to LGBTQ employees. Each of these groups welcomes members from any background. This fosters deeper understanding among an entire workforce. People come together to learn about the unique challenges facing specific groups, and support their coworkers with their advocacy. Simple engagement on this level has tremendous power. The most virulent prejudice comes from an inability to empathize with other people. Programs like these break down the barriers that keep people ignorant of other cultures’ perspectives and challenges.

Organize Company-Wide Engagement in the Community

A self-organizing workforce does not exempt organizations from developing their own community engagement initiatives. Not doing so would be an abdication of leadership. Organizations are members of a community, too, and they should invest in those communities with their own macro-level initiatives. That said, as a senior leader, you can take community engagement cues from your employees. At Aviall, I made sure to organize large, company-wide events, and if I felt like we needed to branch out, I would ask other leaders in the organization what they were doing to make a difference and then look for ways to scale that.

I also took inspiration for these projects from our company’s values. For example, since the founder of Aviall had served in the military, one of our values was supporting our veterans. So, we partnered with the Adaptive Training Foundation, which provides free physical training to veterans and others with life-altering physical injuries. The programs go beyond functional rehabilitation, helping participants train for specific sports. This enables people to rediscover a connection with their body as a powerful, amazing, and special aspect of who they are. It might seem inconsequential, but this kind of intense, disciplined training also can facilitate the healing of the mental scars that accompany life-altering injuries.

Nobody who works for Aviall had expertise in how to offer this kind of training, but we wanted to help as many people as possible, so we offered financial support to this organization. Then to foster a deeper level of partnership, several of us regularly went to the gym and worked out with the veterans. We got to know them, hear their stories, and empathize. We never focused on their disabilities, pitied them, or went on these tours to congratulate ourselves for our financial contributions. We were just a group of athletes, sweating through our workouts, together.

Other ways that companies can have a lasting impact is by partnering with local educational programs or small businesses. These investments not only help the company’s workforce feel engaged and committed to a purpose, but they help develop individuals and entities that will pay it forward and strengthen communities and economies for generations to come.

Eric Strafel is the author of THE FRONTLINE CEO and the founder of the consulting firm SUMMi7, which helps businesses grow profits and scale innovation with mission-driven purpose. Previously, he was the President and CEO of Aviall, a global provider of new aviation parts, supply chain management, and other services to the aerospace aftermarket, which was acquired by Boeing. Previously, he held leadership and program management positions at L3 Communications, Honeywell, and Precision Conversions.