On my post about RevolutionHR’s crowdfunding campaign for MaximusLife, a user by the wonderful pseudonym of “Medieval Recruiter” offered some interesting insights about employee engagement.

“[T]he idea of ‘employee engagement’ always struck me as a little annoying,” they wrote. “Your employees often spend more time at work than they do with their families and loved ones. Just how much more ‘engaged’ do companies want them to be?”

Medieval Recruiter went on to share some thoughts about what might actually make employees more engaged: rather than looking for new ways to thoroughly entangle them in their jobs, maybe companies should be looking for ways to help employees breathe more easily and escape the daily grind once in a while. A rested employee with a happy personal life is an employee who has the energy and drive to invigorate the office and perform to the best of their abilities.

Medieval Recruiter suggested that employers offer better salaries and benefits, allow more time off, and “let off on the pressure a little.” The gist of his recommendations is that if organizations treat employees better, employees may be more ready and willing to give their all.

Think about it: in your personal life, do you give more to those who treat you well or to those who try to bleed you for all you’re worth?

I like what Medieval Recruiter has to say, and I mention it here in part because it merits consideration, but also because it dovetails nicely with an excellent listicle (seems like an oxymoron, I know) over at Inc.: “10 Overrated Business Books (and What to Read Instead).”

The Inc. article, written by author Geoffrey James, sweeps away the contemporary business canon and posits an entirely new reading list — well, almost entirely new. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” gets to stay because, as James probably correctly surmises, most people who claim to have read it haven’t ever actually cracked the spine.

What’s interesting about the new reading list proposed by James is that it moves decidedly away from the traditional tenets of business in neoliberal capitalism toward kinder, more people-oriented principles. For instance, patron saint of selfishness/total hack Ayn Rand is dumped in favor of Otto L. Bettmann’s “The Gold Old Days — They Were Terrible!”, which details all the flaws of laissez faire capitalism. Similarly, James replaces “Reengineering the Corporation” with “Nickel and Dimed,” which “illustrates what the working world in the U.S. is like after decades of ‘reengineering.’” (Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.)

James’ renovated canon aligns with Medieval Recruiter’s comments, and though I could be jumping to conclusions here — one list and one comment do not a movement make — my serendipitous encounter with two sources espousing the same thoughts on the same day has made me wonder: are we reaching a new moment in business, one where a people-first ethos replaces the profit-first imperatives of the last few decades?

The Rise of People-First Business

It isn’t just Medieval Recruiter and James who are challenging businesses to care more about employees: according to Deloitte’s 2014 “Millennial Survey,” generation Y, for the most part, espouses the same pro-people views. In fact, millennials take it even further: businesses shouldn’t just treat employees better; they should treat the whole world better. Millennials want to see businesses do more for society: 68 percent want to see businesses address resource scarcity; 65 percent want to see businesses address climate change; and 64 percent want to see businesses address income inequality. Half of millennials want “to work for a business with ethical practices.”

What’s more, generation Y thinks overall business success should be measure not by profit alone. A truly successful business, in the eyes of millennials, should “focus on improving society.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Occupy movement was largely lead by millennials. Though the movement took up a loose concatenation of issues as rallying cries instead of focusing all of its efforts on one or two things, the refrain of “we are the 99 percent” came from a place of financial and social disenchantment. Now, as generation Y becomes the dominant age group in the workforce, it makes sense that the ideal of the Occupy movement — a more just and equitable society — is showing up in organizations. You’ll have to excuse millennials if they no longer subscribe to the old business canon — they watched people use the ethos of that canon to run the global economy into the ground during the Great Recession.

Recent movements to raise the minimum wage are another sign of our society’s growing discontent with socially irresponsible employers, and the pressure people are exerting on those businesses is starting to payoff. For example, Ikea announced that it will be raising the hourly minimum wage at its U.S. stores to $10.76, a 17 percent increase. Some might dismiss the push for a higher minimum wage as the work of bleeding heart youngsters, but we should keep in mind that quite a few expert economists agree that a higher minimum wage reduces poverty. That’s good for both society and the economy.

What I believe we’re seeing is the start of a trend: businesses will increasingly become more invested in working for social good, treating people — both employees and non-employees — as more important than profit. At least, I hope that’s what we’re seeing.

What Next? How to be a Kinder Business

So, the question becomes: what do organizations have to do to become better, kinder, and more people-oriented?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that. I’ve never run a business. I can offer advice that I think is relevant, but I’d much rather give you something more concrete. So, collected below, are resources from people who do know what they’re talking about. I urge everyone who is interested in building socially responsible businesses to check them out.

  1. Obviously, you’ll want to start with Geoffrey James’ new reading list, which was one of the impetuses for this piece precisely because it is such a great list. I especially recommend “Nickel and Dimed.”
  2. BDA Inc. CEO Jay Deutsch wrote a good introduction to running a socially responsible business for Entrepreneur.
  3. Check out the Mills College Center for Socially Responsible Businesses.
  4. Nonprofit business network BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) has a wealth of resources on its website.
  5. University of California, Berkeley, runs a Center for Responsible Business as part of the Haas School of Business.
  6. Here’s an interesting paper on social responsibility and the morality of profits.

These six resources are just the start. My hope is that they’ll set everyone who reads them on the path toward corporate social responsibility. If not, what sort of world can we look forward to?

(Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty.)


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