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Toronto-based Bigwin Group hosted a panel of experts in New York to discuss how social responsibility affects employee recruiting.Samantha Walton

Cooper Robinson, 28, had a variety of career options after graduating with distinction from Western University's Richard Ivey School of Business with a degree in business and integrated engineering.

He could have gone into finance or consulting, or gone to work for an oil-and-gas multinational as did some cohorts. Instead he chose to take a lower salary to work at a sustainable energy startup in Calgary called Cap-Op Energy. Like many job seekers today, salary considerations for Mr. Robinson ranked below finding a company that he believed in, one where he felt he could make a positive impact.

Organizations have historically made contributions to the community. In recent years, the connection between social responsi- bility and the company's level of attractiveness to potential employees is getting renewed attention as a recruiting-and-retention tool.

"I've definitely felt empowered in any job searching I've been doing. Those are pretty good degrees to walk into just about any company," Mr. Robinson said. "It wouldn't have been too much of a stretch to go into finance, but what it came down to for me was the thought of going into work every day knowing I'm not into it and don't believe in it. For me to perform my best, I have to be working at a company where I believed in what they're doing."

A 2011 white paper by Toronto-based talent management firm Mandrake found that 88 per cent of respondents prefer working with a company that has a good reputation for environmental sustainability, and that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the third-most important driver of employee engagement. In a 2014 Nielson survey, 67 per cent of respondents preferred to work for a socially responsible company.

Not every potential recruit will consider such initiatives a top priority in their career decisions, and a large portion of the job market is still motivated primarily by such factors as income and career growth potential. Still, as candidates express a greater interest in social responsibility, organizations are coming to understand that they are being measured by this standard in the job market.

"This is something we've really seen, particularly over the last four years, where it's becoming the centre point of the conversation with our candidates," said Hart Hillman, the founder and CEO of Bigwin Group Inc., a Toronto-based global executive search and talent strategy firm.

"In the hundreds of interviews that we conduct in the course of a year, the notion of what a company stands for beyond the balance sheet comes up nine times out of 10.

"As the war for talent continues, and people try to take talent from other organizations, I think what they're experiencing is that it's harder to attract talent from organizations where the people really feel like they're doing something bigger than themselves in the world," he said.

In late October, Mr. Hillman gathered a group of human resources and corporate social responsibility experts in New York to explore the impact that social initiatives have on employee recruitment and retention.

While such initiatives were once delegated to HR and marketing professionals, panelists from a wide range of industries – all of whom have subsidiaries or customers in Canada – agreed that in order to be successful, such initiatives must feel authentic, align with the company's core values and include input from the entire organization.

JPMorgan Chase, for example, focuses its corporate social responsibility efforts on economic growth, work force readiness and small-business loans. One of its latest initiatives includes a $100-million (U.S.) flexible lending program to help revitalize Detroit.

"The head of corporate responsibility reports to our CEO, Jamie Dimon, so we're not embedded in human resources or in marketing," said Tara Cardone, the head of employee engagement and volunteerism at JP Morgan Chase.

The panel heard that decision-making around socially responsible initiatives shouldn't only include input from the entire company. Luxury travel company Micato Safaris, for example, acts on input from field workers who are better positioned than executives to identify the most effective ways to help the African communities with which they work. Initiatives are targeted to be relevant to the company's overall mission, with clear objectives. "It's the entire gambit of the organization," said Dennis Pinto, the managing director of Micato Safaris. "Many of the initiatives are not coming from [executive director of Micato's non-profit, AmericaShare] Lorna [Macleod] and her team, they're coming from people in the field."

Karyn Margolis, the director of CSR and sustainability at Avon Products, chose her employer based on its track record of championing gender equality. The company's sales team is between 60 and 70 per cent female, as well as half its leadership team and its CEO, she said.

"Everyone has a different definition, and it's called different things at different companies, but it's more than philanthropy; its about how you operate as a corporate citizen," she said. "It has to be about how the company operates, and philanthropy and social programs are an extension of that, but it's much broader than giving away money."

As an organization that champions women's causes, Avon is involved in fighting breast cancer and preventing domestic violence.

"As of this year we've donated a billion dollars for these causes since the 1950s," she said. "It shows that we are dedicated, and employees see that and prospective employees see that."

Katy Hemmings, the senior vice-president of employee communications, strategy and planning at Pearson, an education publishing and assessment service company, says her company's mandate of providing access to education doesn't end with financially viable opportunities to do so.

"We think about our employee base, and probably about 60 per cent in the U.S. are former teachers, people who genuinely care about education. They would spot it a mile off if we did things that didn't feel authentic," she said, adding that the company's CSR programs include global literacy, training and education initiatives.

Hewlett-Packard Co. measured the cost of its social responsibility program against resulting employee attraction and retention gains, and found a business case for encouraging its employees to allocate four work-hours a month for volunteerism.

"We track those hours and we cross-reference that against performance," said Mike Dallas, the senior vice-president of human resources and global operations at HP. "People who do participate in the volunteer program, on average, have a slightly higher performance rating, and they tend to stay longer with HP in similar types of jobs."

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