Business leaders: ignore this key demographic at your peril

A new generation of conscience-driven workers is on the rise and, when it comes to assessing employers’ ESG performance, they’re voting with their feet

Climate quitters at a protest

Business leaders may well be tired of hearing about the varied ways in which their employees can quit. Quietly, loudly, full of rage – barely a month goes by without a new entry in the lexicon of business buzzwords. But the latest addition, ‘climate quitting’, is one they can’t afford to ignore. 

What is climate quitting?

Climate quitting (also known as conscious quitting) is the act of leaving an employer (or spurning a job offer) because you’re dissatisfied with that firm’s ESG record. 

This is a significant trend for numerous reasons. A commitment to inclusivity and sustainable practice has long been seen as a nice, but inessential, way for employers to attract and retain skilled employees. But it’s fast becoming clear that it’s a must for any company wanting to stand a fighting chance in the war for talent.

Moreover, unlike with quiet quitting, it’s possible to prove that climate quitting is happening. There have been high-profile climate quitters – for instance, Caroline Dennett, whose LinkedIn video explaining her resignation from Shell has been reshared more than 1,800 times. 

There’s also a growing body of research indicating that it’s a meaningful movement. Sceptical employers might raise an eyebrow at a 2022 poll – run on behalf of sustainable software platform Supercritical – which found that at least half of 18- to 24-year-olds would consider leaving an employer if they didn’t rate its net-zero policies. 

But it would be harder for them to dismiss the findings of a research project led by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, published in the 2023 Net Positive Employee Barometer report. This surveyed 4,000 UK and US employees at firms employing at least 250 people. It found that two-thirds of the UK respondents wanted to work for a company that was having a positive impact on the world, while 45% said they would consider quitting if their firm’s values didn’t align with their own. More than a third (35%) said that they had already resigned for this reason. 

Why businesses cannot afford to ignore the climate quitters

Climate quitting is happening – and business leaders need to take note. Although the labour market is showing signs of softening, the demand for highly skilled employees remains high. The risk of alienating talented and driven young people should be a serious concern. 

Polman’s research found that climate quitting was most prevalent among millennials and zoomers, but the latter group will obviously constitute a growing proportion of the workforce in the coming years. To dismiss what’s important to generation Z could put any recruiter at a disadvantage, as younger workers clearly favour more eco-friendly employers. Companies that refuse to commit to ESG objectives in a meaningful way are already trawling a shrinking talent pool. 

Lastly, climate quitters can inflict serious reputational damage. They may well feel passionate enough about a former employer’s failings to share their feelings on social media. Big companies such as Shell feel like deserving targets for public censure. While these behemoths may not suffer much damage to their bottom lines, a spate of ‘viral’ climate resignations could prove grievously harmful to smaller firms. 

How should companies respond?

By now, telling business leaders that they should take the climate crisis seriously feels like advising them to stop using floppy disks and fax machines. If you aren‘t actively trying to reduce your firm’s carbon footprint, keep exploitative employers out of your supply chain or ensure effective board-level risk management, the rise of climate quitting will be the least of your worries.

But if you are an employer who’s dedicated to continuous improvement, you have a real opportunity here. A KPMG study published in Q1 2023 found that, while two-thirds of office workers wouldn’t work in certain industries for ethical reasons, a clear ESG commitment from an employer in one of those sectors would prompt 37% of them to change their minds. 

That means, whatever your industry, smart goals and actions could stem the flow of skilled people out of your door and into the nearest B Corporation. And, perhaps more crucially, it could mark you out as a favoured destination for tomorrow’s talent.