Corporate Social Responsibility in the Age of Gen. Z: Young Workers Expect You to Do More

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Last summer, it came out that the online home goods and furniture company Wayfair had sold $200,000 worth of bedroom furniture to BCFS, a government contractor running child detention camps near the US-Mexico border.

Wayfair employees were outraged and demanded that the company stop doing business with BCFS. Executives responded dispassionately. As CBS reported, company leaders first posted an unsigned letter to Twitter, explaining that they didn’t see a problem selling to any customer “acting within the laws of the countries” within which Wayfair operates and that a sale doesn’t imply support for the “opinions or actions” of a customer.

Cofounder Steve Conine then held a meeting with employees, The Cut reported, in which he urged them to take the fight out of the workplace.

“To pull a business into it — we’re not a political entity,” Conine said. “We’re not trying to take a political side.” The employees were unappeased. So, more than 500 of them walked out of the Boston headquarters and spent an afternoon in Copley Square engaged in a very visible protest that went viral on social media.

The employees made it clear that they generally liked the company and their jobs. It was the deal they objected to. They didn’t feel it was socially responsible. As one worker told CBS, “A lot of people decided this issue was more important than the possibility of losing their job.”

As Wayfair learned the hard way, today’s employees expect more from their workplaces than a paycheck and a good benefits package. It’s not just about what the company can do for them; it’s also about what the company can do to improve the world.

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) emerged years ago. As socially minded millennials and Gen. Z-ers account for an ever-growing percentage of consumers and workers, CSR has to be more than an afterthought for organizations that hope to attract an engaged workforce.

An Eye on the Under-40s

Reflektive recently surveyed more than 1,000 full-time US workers and found that more than half of American professionals under the age of 40 feel a company’s CSR program would affect their decision to work there. Younger workers were 24 percent more likely to say this than professionals aged 40-54.


• Two-thirds of professionals under 40 said a company’s CSR program makes them want to do good work for the company.
• 64 percent said a company’s CSR program contributes to their overall job satisfaction.
• More than half said a company’s CSR efforts influence their decision to buy from that company.

While these stats mostly speak to millennials’ commitment to CSR, Gen. Z is shaping up to be even more socially minded. A recent McKinsey report describes Gen. Z as a generation whose “main spur to consumption is the search for truth, in both a personal and a communal form.” The report urges companies to “rethink how they deliver value to the consumer … and — more than ever — practice what they preach when they address marketing issues and work ethics.”

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Setting Up Your CSR Program for Success

The bar for CSR success is higher now than it has ever been, and it’s only going to get higher. In the age of a workforce and consumer base dominated by millennials and Gen. Z-ers, consider the following key tenets of successful CSR programs:

1. Connection

Integrate CSR initiatives into overall business development plans and support causes that are relevant to your company and its industry. For example, a clothing company might invest in efforts to improve the conditions of textile factory workers, or a company headquartered in San Francisco might get involved with nonprofits that help the homeless. A real-world example would be software company Autodesk, which gives software, training, and support to “nonprofits, startups, and entrepreneurs that are using design for environmental or social good” through its Technology Impact Program.

If there are causes the company actively supports, make these efforts transparent to employees. This can help motivate your Gen. Z and millennial employees, who are looking for deeper connections to the work they’re doing.

2. Variety

Offer a variety of programs to achieve broad appeal. For example, you could dedicate an entire day to a food bank during one quarter, and take an entire day off to feed homeless people the next quarter. You could also replace a team-building social event with a team-building social responsibility activity. Ask for employee input on which programs should be offered, then choose the programs that stoke the most interest.

Surveys are one way to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s important to your workforce and make sure CSR initiatives aren’t being exclusively defined from the top down. Be sure to ask for volunteers; it’s likely there is at least one employee so passionate about the program that they’ll invest time in making the event a success.

3. Flexibility

Set aside specific times for employees to dedicate to CSR programs. Offer both structured and flexible options.For example, organize specific activities on specific days, but also give employees a certain number of hours to donate to a CSR effort or philanthropic program on their own schedules.

When employees have the opportunity to participate in something they care about, they care more about their work in turn. Younger workers (and customers) are driving companies to do more and be better. They want to know that your company cares about the future. As the McKinsey report notes, Gen. Z believes “a company’s actions must match its ideals, and those ideals must permeate the entire stakeholder system.”

Can you say that about your organization?

Greg Brown is CEO of Reflektive.

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Greg Brown is CEO of Reflektive, a performance management company built for top performers and growing businesses and the 13th fastest-growing company in North America according to Deloitte's 2018 Technology Fast 500 awards. Reflektive has more than 500 forward-thinking customers, including Allbirds, PagerDuty, Pinterest, Privia Health, and Protective Life Insurance.