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Sustainability isn’t the most favorable of topics with recruiters. But ask them about the sustainability of their hires and you’ll instantly hear a litany of complaints and frustrations.

Yesterday, Vault kicked off a series of seminars on this very important, if not the most popular, topic for the recruitment sector: The increasing role of CSR and sustainability in recruitment.

Sponsored by Madrid’s IE Business School, these seminars have been planned exclusively for recruiters and HR managers and align well with the School’s overarching commitment to sustainability (they have a master’s program dedicated to environmental change), social entrepreneurship, and CSR.

But what makes sense on college campuses doesn’t necessarily align with recruiters whose objective is much more linear: To hire the best talent based on a specific list of behavioral and technical skills, with the hope that they will stick around for at least a few years.

Retention? That’s an HR function.

This disconnect became the focus of my planning when I was approached by Vault to design the seminars. I came up with three distinct objectives:

  • Demonstrate how a growing consciousness about corporate social responsibility is changing expectations among prospective job candidates and employees;
  • Question whether recruitment teams are responding to this change in CSR awareness by modifying their outreach and strategy; and
  • Offer examples – and best practices – of how recruiters can best illustrate their company’s corporate citizenship before the candidate comes aboard.

In all my years at Vault (I left in July to start Singh Solutions, a research and advisory firm offering CSR communications and social media strategy services – and continue to write for CSRwire and Forbes), I have always put a premium on the efficacy of a responsible and innovative culture in attracting candidates. But when you bring in terms like CSR, sustainability, inclusion, things begin to get murky.

While no one can argue that a business’ corporate and social behavior is a POWERFUL tool in attracting talent, especially in the current recession, how do you convey as much in a job interview?

This is where the real disconnect then emerges, indicated amply by a series of interviews I conducted last year with four MBA candidates committed to pursuing work that aligned with their sense of corporate social responsibility: Boston University MBA Candidate Ashley JablowGeet Singh, Whit Tice and Larry Furman.

Jablow told me then:

“I have chosen to go to business school so that I can create change and be an ethical and responsible contributor to business.”

But who’s responding? Not a lot of companies, I found. As Tice put it:

“Without awareness, there is no sense of urgency.”

This lack of urgency became the underlying theme of session number one on Tuesday. Joined by PwC’s HR and Administrative Leader for Florida Kimberly Jones and Guillermo Montes, Managing Director for South US, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean region for IE Business School, I offered the audience an alternative view: A reality where recruiters are not only responsible for hiring the most skilled talent but also the best fit based on their values.

“Retention after all is half the battle. Getting the candidate in is hard but retention becomes equally challenging if we don’t invest in aligning the candidate’s personality to the company’s core values,” said Jones. For PwC, this has meant organizing initiatives like Project Belize and Project New Orleans, where summer interns get to participate in community building exercises, and the team hopes, get a real close look at the firm’s culture.

“The average age of a PwC employee is 26 years old. So demands and expectations are quite different from older generations,” she emphasized, adding that a brand that not only commits to CSR but also makes it a priority becomes an increasingly valuable ally in attracting candidates.

In a globalized economy where work can be outsourced at a click of a button and entrepreneurship is emerging as a serious alternative for many graduates, organizations have it tough, even if they don’t recognize it just yet. While recruiters might erroneously believe that the market is to their advantage, the fight for top talent remains fierce. This is where your organization’s culture, values, and social and environmental commitments can emerge as key differentiators for a generation that is demanding fairness, ethical behavior and responsibility from business.

While the debate was spirited and the conversation heated at times, it was clear that the panel had been well received. We ran over time with questions pouring in. Examples include the impact of globalization on recruitment, how companies are dealing with an increasingly age diverse candidate pool, and whether we should expect reformulation of job profiles and descriptions in coming years.

Suffice it to say, we together – the panel and the audience – shared something powerful this Tuesday: We experienced a crowd-sourced change in mentality. We made a commitment. Together. To bring back some of the equilibrium lost in recent years between business, society and the environment by focusing on a company’s most powerful assets: It’s human resources.

Are you ready to have a real conversation?

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on September 29, 2011.