Sustainability is no longer just a buzzword or a more academic way to say “going green.” Today, it's a vital part of the corporate world, attracting talent and paving the way for long-term business success. In the contemporary workplace, sustainability is about striking the perfect balance between business profitability and positive social and environmental impact.

Our recent study, Michael Page Sustainability Insights, shines a spotlight on how sustainability interacts with employee experiences and corporate responsibilities. This research was a Europe-wide survey involving over 4,750 respondents, inviting their thoughts on sustainability and its implications in their daily lives and work. The study culminated in a webinar with panellists discussing the results and further exploring issues like workplace discrimination and the dual perspectives of workers and employers regarding sustainability.

In this article, we’ll unpack some key insights from the survey and the webinar. We’ll explore how sustainability affects employee satisfaction and its influential role in tackling workplace discrimination. You might be surprised by the complexity of these relationships and the power of sustainability to shape the future of work. Ready to challenge your assumptions? Let’s dive right in.

Discrimination: a sustainability concern?

What does discrimination in the workplace have to do with sustainability? The answer lies in understanding corporate sustainability, which isn’t just about long-term financial health or recycling Coke cans. It’s about fostering an inclusive, supportive environment for everyone, regardless of background, identity or experience.

Discrimination has a direct bearing on the health and sustainability of a business. A genuinely sustainable workplace ensures equitable treatment of employees, fostering a more productive and engaged workforce that tends to stay with the company longer. In contrast, if a company doesn’t address discrimination issues, it might face setbacks, including a high turnover rate, code-switching (in which employees feel unable to be their authentic selves at work) or a damaged reputation.

A closer look at the data

Let’s dig deeper into the survey results. More than half of the workers we talked to (51%) had come up against workplace discrimination at least once last year. The most common form was ageism, with a third of our respondents bringing it up, followed by gender discrimination, faced by 23%, and discrimination due to social background, reported by 22%. The takeaway? These issues are widespread and can't be ignored when discussing corporate sustainability.

One of the reasons why it’s so important to clamp down on age discrimination in Europe is that this is an ageing continent. Older people can bring a lot of value and knowledge to their organisations.

Paula Ordoñez, ESG Solutions & Corporate Sustainability Director at Savills

Workplace diversity and inclusion isn’t just a box to be ticked. It’s about making the most of everyone’s skills and experiences, a critical factor in talent retention and sustainable business growth. The data makes clear that if we’re serious about sustainability, companies need to roll up their sleeves and work towards a more inclusive, discrimination-free workplace.

Smashing through barriers: gender discrimination at the top

When we zero in on gender discrimination, the data reveals a worrying trend. As people climb the corporate ladder, instances of gender discrimination seem to climb with them. Of those who experienced this type of discrimination in the past year, 31% held C-suite positions. This points to a deep-rooted issue of female representation at the executive level, what’s often called “breaking the glass ceiling.”

Fortunately, we’re seeing some progress, with regions like Scandinavia setting a great example. Yet, there's no room for complacency. The gender gap is stubborn, and the road towards complete gender equality in the workplace and boardroom is long and winding.

Towards a more equitable workplace

The journey to building a more equitable and inclusive workplace has seen significant milestones in recent years, thanks in part to the transformative power of social movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Time’s Up. These campaigns have successfully driven the conversation forward and placed diversity and inclusion firmly on the corporate agenda. In response, many multinational corporations have put Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programmes in place, acknowledging diversity’s crucial role in corporate sustainability and talent acquisition.

In France, more than 50% of lesbian women face aggression or discrimination in the workplace. And more than two-thirds are choosing to hide their sexual orientation. So clearly, prejudices are still prevalent in the workforce.

Anne-Cécile Remont, Director of the Tire Industry Project at WBCSD

However, these strides forward don’t mean our work is done. Just 7% of CEOs at Europe’s top companies were women in 2021, according to research by European Women on Boards. Norway and France are the only two countries where the average share of women on boards reached the target of 40% set by the European Commission.

Turning awareness into action

In the move toward a fairer workplace, let’s not forget about less obvious yet damaging forms of discrimination. A good example is microaggressions — often unintentional actions or comments that express some prejudice towards an individual or marginalised group. Awareness is key. It’s up to leaders to learn about these subtle biases and how they affect individuals on the receiving end.

Leadership needs to step up, setting a no-tolerance policy for discrimination while investing in education to help employees spot and address unconscious biases. It’s also about fostering trust. Employees should feel safe to report incidents, knowing they’ll be properly handled.

But it’s not just about the rules — it’s about the atmosphere. Creating a culture where respect and equality are the norm requires commitment from the top down. This means ongoing training, patience and senior leaders who model the behaviours they want to see in their workplace.

Sustainability and job search: driving employee choices

Job hunters today are looking for more than just a good salary and some enticing perks. According to our survey, an eye-catching 66% of people consider a company’s commitment to sustainability when deciding where to apply. The sentiment runs deep among current employees, too — 37% are happy with their company’s eco-credentials, but a noticeable 28% think their employers could be doing much more.

Employees now seek an inherent sense of purpose in their roles. As a result, companies need to step up their game — it’s not enough to simply talk about saving the planet. Workers seek a meaningful contribution to sustainability, embedded in their everyday work and measured in progress and outcomes. 

For Generation X, sustainability was barely on the agenda. But for Generation Y, sustainability is something that drives their decision-making. As for Generation Z, one study suggests that they will be the first cohort to prioritise purpose over pay.

Anne-Cécile Remont, Director of the Tire Industry Project at WBCSD

Sustainability initiatives: making it mainstream

So, how can organisations quickly improve their sustainability credentials? The key is to make it mainstream. It’s not just about having a green team working away in a corner. Sustainability should be the heart and soul of a company’s mission, reflected in its products, services, investment decisions, procurement strategies and how it interacts with its customers. Sustainability should never be a side project or an afterthought.

It is critically important that organisations view sustainability as an investment, not a cost. For this to happen, sustainability must be championed from the very top of the organisation.

Paula Ordoñez, ESG Solutions & Corporate Sustainability Director at Savills

Large companies have a tremendous opportunity to work with their value chains, particularly smaller businesses, to make meaningful changes. This is a chance to influence and transform an entire system rather than just focusing on individual corporate footprints.

And there's a side benefit, too — focusing on sustainability can transform your organisation’s culture. It creates a sense of belonging, motivates employees and encourages collaboration. It can inspire employees to work together towards a greater purpose, breaking down the barriers between different departments. In short, it’s a great way to attract, motivate and keep the very best people.

The path to sustainable practices

In a fiercely competitive job market, a company’s commitment to sustainability can be a differentiator. As the Michael Page Sustainability Insights study and our webinar reveal, the focus on sustainability is not just about being eco-friendly. It’s also about building an equitable, inclusive workplace that values all employees and their unique contributions. With both employees and job seekers prioritising sustainability, companies must heed the call and take action. Indeed, sustainability isn’t a nice-to-have anymore. It’s a business imperative.

Want to delve deeper into the insights and discussions from our experts on sustainability in the workplace? Don’t miss the opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of employee and business perspectives on this vital topic. Watch the replay of our webinar and join the conversation on shaping a more sustainable, inclusive future for all. Click here to watch the replay:

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