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Making ESG a powerful staff performance tool

There is acceptance of the benefits of ESG in recruiting and retaining staff, but there are few public examples of it working well in practice, or how profoundly effective it can be at motivating employees. The restaurant and bar chain The Alchemist, reveals how its ESG programme surprised everyone with the major positive impact it had on staff. The article explains what happened.

When The Alchemist restaurant and bar chain launched its customer engagement sustainability programme, it had no idea of the profound effect it would have in motivating staff, and creating talent retention and recruitment. At times it has brought some team members to tears of positive emotion.

As the hospitality chain’s Talent and Culture Director, Hannah Plumb, says, ‘I’m so glad we did this. This has made such a difference, and it will make such a difference.’

The story goes back to wanting to make additional impact to The Alchemist’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy. It already had an ongoing sustainability programme that was making a difference in cutting waste and reducing carbon output, and it was being improved all the time. However, the decision was made to adopt Gift Trees as a significant further development in the commitment to the environment, but also as a way of doing social good. When the decision was taken it was not envisaged what an impact it would turn out to have on staff, the majority of whom are Gen Zs and Millennials.

‘I’m very passionate about our partnership with Gift Trees,’ says Plumb, talking about the outcome of working with the hospitality sustainability specialists. ‘Young people want to feel a part of something bigger than just a job. You’re not going to work just for the sake of going to work. You’re part of something bigger. It’s like a sense of belonging to what you do.’

Gift Trees works by enabling diners to add a small amount to bills to pay for a fruit tree to develop agroforestry in an area of economic deprivation. The effect is to offset carbon, lift some of the world’s poorest people out of poverty, and revitalise eroded soil. For as little as 123 pence, a fruit tree is planted that in a lifetime can sequester as much as one ton of carbon. So far more than 280,000 trees have been planted by the combined efforts of The Alchemist and its customers.

The introduction of Gift Trees proved hugely popular with customers, with only one per cent opting out of contributing to the scheme. Customers can use The Alchemist app to track the planting of their own specific trees through geotagging on a mapping system. They can see their individual fruit tree orchards grow every time they make a contribution. In fact, Gift Trees drives repeat business by enhancing the dining experience to create a feel good factor, and results in customer word of mouth and social media recommendation.

However, it is the effect on staff that came as the biggest surprise. A key element of Gift Trees is rewarding participating restaurants with Tokens that can be used for staff visits to the agroforestry created, and this has positively changed the lives of staff members forever.

As Senior Front of House Trainer Paula Jackson-McDonald says, ’Getting involved with Gift Trees was the best thing I’ve ever done, for sure.’

And she is not alone in her sentiments.

‘I’d like to look back in five years time, and think that was when I changed my life. I want to keep planting trees. I think it’s a genius idea. It’s solving two of the biggest issues at the same time, climate change and poverty. I just want to keep doing it,’ says Isaac, who works front of house.

This is mirrored by Restaurant Trainer Kelsie Baxter, ’It’s just changed the way I will look at life. This experience is one of the best things. I’m really grateful.’

Kate Kowell, a Duty Manager, adds, ’Helping people that will never know you exist is an insane weird feeling that’s amazing. You’re giving them food, you’re giving them an income. This is just amazing.’

One of the key aspects of the tree planting programme is that The Alchemist staff know and track where trees are being planted in the Usambara Mountains in North East Tanzania. This is because of the geotagging. Those that work front and back of house understand in detail what is happening and where, and the positive effect The Alchemist’s initiative is having on the local people, plus the economy as well as environment and wildlife. As Plumb says, being able to relate to these factors has had a profound effect on staff, and on a personal level feels privileged to be part of it.

One result of the enthusiasm for the tree planting, is that staff encourage each other to promote the scheme. It creates bonding and purpose that runs throughout the restaurant teams. Plumb is quick to recognise the sense of belonging, belief and togetherness that has been fostered, the interaction with the programme, and the acute awareness of the results of the tree planting.

The HR benefits of progressive ESG strategy are widely accepted, and for business sectors reliant on younger demographics, demonstrable environmental and social programmes are increasingly important in being able to recruit and retain talent.

A study by Randstad of 35,000 employees found nearly half of Millennials and Gen Zs say they will not take a job unless the employer matches their social and environmental values, and they want the companies they work for to share their moral principles. Similarly, a report by Talent Solutions shows that individuals want to be employed by organisations that reflect their values, and the majority want their job role to improve society, while a report by McKinsey found the better the ESG programme, the more the best talent will be attracted.

However, having an effective ESG strategy is one thing, but the results of creating employee involvement, and ensuring they are aware of the details of the results of their efforts, is another. It can become a powerful human resources tool as well as fulfilling environmental and social commitment goals. The influence it can have on employees should not be underestimated. At a basic level it successfully assists to address the key challenges of productivity, recruitment, retention and absenteeism, but more than that, it can also elicit positive emotion that feeds on itself.

There is one more benefit. The infectious engagement created inevitably permeates to being felt by all third parties that employees have contact with, including customers. For human resources departments operating in the service sectors in particular, staff interaction with ESG programmes should be recognised as a new option for performance improvement.

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