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Want the best talent? Then be a good corporate citizen

This panel of Canadian executives gathered to talk about their corporate social responsibility programs and how vital that is to attracting new talent. From left to right (sitting): Sandy McIntosh, Telus SVP Human Resources and Chief Human Resources Officer; Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen; Mary-Alice Vuicic – Loblaw and Co. Ltd., EVP Human Resources and Labour Relations; Bill Young, CEO of Social Capital Partners; Tova White, Coca-Cola Canada VP Human Resources. Hart Hillman, CEO of the Bigwin Group, holds the microphone.

Paul Alexander Photography

More than ever, people want to know they are toiling for a company that is doing some good in the world, not just chasing ever-increasing corporate profits.

And it's not just up-and-coming Gen Zers or millennials who feel a company with a greater purpose is a much better place to work, but employees of all ages, says Hart Hillman, founder of The Bigwin Group Inc., a Toronto-based executive search and retention firm.

"People are now looking at a company's social responsibility before choosing a company to work for," he said at a panel discussion Bigwin hosted last month that included executives from Telus Corp., Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the environmental sustainability foundation Evergreen, Coca-Cola Co. and Social Capital Partners.

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However, most studies focus on millennials' attitudes toward work, rather than that of other generations. They value a company's social responsibility initiatives, and for 78 per cent of respondents to the 2013 Cone Communications Social Impact Study, that influences where they want to work.

Companies that ignore their social responsibility or just tack on some charitable events to look the part will find themselves losing out in the war on talent, said Bill Young, CEO of Social Capital Partners, a Toronto-based non-profit that works to address the country's employment challenges.

Older generations "separated career and community," Mr. Young said. "This generation says 'I want to integrate this stuff, everything I do.' They will be holding these corporations accountable. If they smell any [corporate social responsibility] B.S., they will be gone."

What's changed that has made more workers demand their employers focus on doing something good for the world?

For millennials in particular, "they're more socially conscious than any other generation," said Mary Alice Vuicic, executive vice-president of human resources and labour relations at Loblaw. "No matter what they're buying or where they're working, they want to know they're doing good."

Loblaw focuses its efforts on improving its environmental footprint by reducing packaging and energy consumption, and targets efforts to improve nutrition and health care, initiatives that align well with its grocery and drug store businesses.

Due to the immediacy of news and social media, people hear about issues affecting the world much faster than before, and they also hear stories of how the actions of a small group can make a change for the better, said Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen, a Toronto-based non-profit that helps make urban environments more sustainable.

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"There's a lot happening in the world that makes people feel useless," he said, and it leads people to ask themselves 'What am I here for?' " Work is no longer "just about the bottom line," he said.

In interviews, Telus job candidates say that working for a company with a social conscience is one of their top three criteria, said Sandy McIntosh, chief human resources officer at Telus. "It's not just millennials; it's become a bit of a social norm." And it's vital to retaining the best staff, she added.

New employees aren't the only ones who want to see social responsibility from the corporations they're involved with, she added. "Our customers and suppliers are demanding it."

And that means more than just doing some charity work when it's been a good year, Ms. McIntosh said.

"It's not just when it's convenient and when we have extra profits," she said, but the way Telus does business. Telus's mantra is "we give where we live," and the company focuses on local charities that mean something to their staff, particularly initiatives that help youth.

Corporations, though, must focus their philanthropic efforts, or they won't be productive. For Coca-Cola, its motto is "make a difference," said Tova White, the beverage maker's vice-president of human resources in Canada. The company focuses its efforts on three areas: wellness, women and water, through links with Participaction, the World Wildlife Fund, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, and through offering microloans to women starting businesses in Africa.

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You also need to ensure your employees and shareholders are aware of the company's socially responsible programs, their impact, and how they can be involved, she added.

"There's no doubt our work is improving our bottom line," Ms. Vuicic said. "It's good for our business. It's part of our values."

If your company is starting to implement social responsibility initiatives, "make sure you know the 'why'" behind any initiative, and how it fits with the company's business, Ms. McIntosh said.

Start by listening to your employees, colleagues, customer and suppliers, Ms. Vuicic said. "It must be something they all can rally around and take ownership of."

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