How Employers Like Athleta Are Stepping Up to Meet the Values of the Next Generation

(Photo by Athleta)

When the apparel brand Athleta decided to become a Certified B Corporation and legal benefit corporation, its decision was largely motivated by wanting to help consumers understand the great work the company was doing behind the scenes to have an ethical supply chain, support women and girls, reduce waste, and generally put people and planet right up there with profit.

What Athleta didn’t anticipate was the way it would transform its workforce.

“We weren’t expecting to see such an increase of employee engagement, yet talent retention and talent recruiting completely spiked,” says Emily Allbritten, who’s been leading the company’s efforts to earn and grow its B Impact Assessment score since the company gained certification in 2018. “We have so many candidates saying they want to interview with us because we are B Corp certified, because we have this purpose-driven brand. It’s been powerful to see that within our headquarters and our stores.”

Allbritten says B Corp certification has opened the brand to new thinking and helps provide a framework for asking the essential question: Is there a better way to do this? A way that benefits the planet and people as well as the business? Becoming a B Corp has helped Athleta broadcast that way of thinking, which consequently is attracting young talent.

New research tells us why a values-driven workplace is so important to Gen Z, made up of those born between 1995 and 2015.

Looking for a job where you can put your talents to work making the world a better place? Search for a meaningful job on B Work, the largest impact-only job search platform.

Gen Z Seeks Meaningful Work

Compared to other generations, Gen Z members are most likely to say they can make a difference by “doing meaningful work through their career” (32% vs. 17% all others), according to a recent report by BBMG and GlobeScan on how brands can win the trust, loyalty and participation of Gen Z. And when asked what drives brand loyalty, the second-highest response among Gen Z, and all others, is brands that help me “feel in control and do things on my terms.”

The study also found Gen Z members are three times more likely to say that the purpose of business is to “serve communities and society” rather than to simply “make good products and services.” As members of this generation enter the workforce, they are influencing companies’ reason for being from the inside out.

“Gen Z has a new perspective on wealth, well-being and the workforce, and they’re seeking brands and communities to help them challenge the status quo,” says BBMG’s Head of Strategy Briana Quindazzi. “For Gen Z, it’s not just about finding a job to pay the bills. It’s about designing life’s work in a way that fulfills their individual purpose and gives them freedom to define their destiny.”

The opportunity for brands that want to use their values to connect with the next generation of workers is to not impose those values from the top down, but find ways to fuel Gen Z’s passion by providing a platform for their individual growth.

Invite Employees to Define Their Own Journey

“From an employee engagement standpoint, we’ve tried to be intentional with what our education levels look like and how involved you can be in our certification,” Allbritten says of how Athleta has invited workers to be a part of B Corp efforts. She recognizes that some employees will want the elevator pitch about being a B Corp, while others will want to go all-in and help effect change. “We created internally what we call the B Corp Crew, a group of people from across all different departments who have said, ‘Hey, I’m really passionate about this subject and I want to get more involved.’”

She’s seen Athleta team members kick-start their own projects or join initiatives in other departments just to get more exposure to a new area of the business. “The nice thing is it’s a great career development option for them,” she adds. “They might be on the HR side, but they’re interested in something on the productions or materials side. And that’s OK! It’s great for them to do that kind of cross-departmental learning and collaboration.” This especially benefits younger employees exploring career paths.

The Best Places to Work Are Human-Centric

For Gen Z, a generation just entering the full-time workforce, offering them employment that allows them to bring their whole selves — values and all — to work is helping purpose-driven brands attract amazing talent.

At Cengage, the education and technology company that’s reinventing higher ed for the digital age, the embodiment of its learner-centric brand values has helped it stand out with customers and employees. The culture of Cengage is a team of trailblazers challenging the broken education system and creating what’s next. And Cengage is seeing its focus on inspiring culture and meaningful values pay off by attracting top tech talent and earning it Glassdoor’s 2019 Best Places to Work distinction.

With 61 million current and future workers poised to fundamentally disrupt the way our economy works, Gen Z also is redefining the expectations, aspirations and boundaries of work and life. Reaching adulthood amidst the benefits and burdens of the gig economy, Gen Z members have a strong apprehension of traditional institutions, 9-to-5 roles and careers that require the massive weight of student debt.

“I think the first thing companies should focus on are the individuals that work there. I want to work somewhere where they help me reach my goals and give me room to create impact,” says Kyle, a 23-year-old from Austin, Texas, who was interviewed by BBMG for the study. Opportunities for volunteerism and personal growth can help support the aspirations of young workers, but brand purpose is especially powerful when applied to company policies and employee benefits.

Rhino Foods, a B Corp and manufacturer of ice cream ingredients in Burlington, Vermont, used the B Impact Assessment to inspire the Rhino Foods Income Advance Program. This program has helped hundreds of its employees get loans for urgent needs like car repairs or medical expenses without needing to rack up crippling debt from credit cards or payday lenders, burdens that hold many people back from reaching their goals, especially young people who are just starting their careers. The program has had a large impact on the company’s talent retention rate, which jumped from 61 percent to 85 percent.

“We were losing some of our best people,” Ted Castle, Rhino Foods founder and president, told B the Change. “So we decided to do something about it. It’s one thing to hang a sign on the wall saying ‘our employees are our most valuable asset’; it’s another to prove it by helping to solve their problems.”

Thriving Together

In today’s world, strategies for business growth, talent acquisition and retention, and sustainability and social impact are interdependent, and companies are learning to address them as such. That integration can be challenging, but by building them in tandem, brands can truly stand for something and break through in a crowded marketplace. And because Gen Z is influencing and redefining the purpose of business, a values-driven brand strategy matters more than ever for brands that want to be relevant to the next generation.

This article was written by Liz Schroeter Courtney, Business Development Manager at BBMG.

B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.

Gen Z Is Shaping the Future of Work was originally published in B the Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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