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Elizabeth Kennedy is associate professor of law and social responsibility at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.
Elizabeth Kennedy is associate professor of law and social responsibility at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. (Handout)

If you’ve recently stayed in a hotel, you’ve likely been urged to “consider the environment” by reusing your towel, an initiative that helps both the planet and the hotel’s bottom line. But when it comes to the employees retrieving, washing and replacing that towel, fewer employers regard those human resources as similarly non-renewable.

Employers would do well to consider the sustainability of their workforce if they want to get ahead in the global economy.

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Successful companies like Amazon and Google recognize that attracting and retaining talented employees drives their economic growth. In addition to high salaries, they offer paid family leave and sick days, flexible schedules, free meals and abundant snacks, on-site child care (and even on-site foosball).

Many employers in lower-wage industries, such as retail, restaurant and hospitality, assume that offering such benefits would be financially impossible. Yet by providing front-line employees with benefits similar to their high-tech counterparts, companies can gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The costs of recruiting, hiring and training add up. Most companies would prefer to retain productive employees, and few consciously create a revolving door. Building a sustainable workforce requires, however, more than an annual BBQ or company tote bag. Employees want tangible benefits, equal opportunity for advancement and fair workplace policies.

So what should you be doing to boost employee sustainability and create long-term value within your workforce?

One approach is to adopt what Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Zeynep Ton calls the “Good Jobs Strategy.” When employers provide more than minimum standards and benefits, they see returns on those investments in the form of reduced turnover. To be sure, this strategy requires operational excellence on the part of the company; high wages cannot compensate for a bad product, poor services or inefficient supply chain.

Some employers will balk at the perceived costs of a good jobs strategy. Yet in cities where paid leave and sick day policies are mandated, employers report increases in employee morale, higher productivity and reduced turnover.

Creating good jobs in industries notorious for low wages and scarce benefits can make you an employer of choice. A similar edge may be gained by offering flexible work schedules and opportunities for cross-training. Better yet, engage employees themselves in this process; front-line workers are often best positioned to propose operational efficiencies that outweigh added costs.

Another way to increase workforce sustainability is to ensure that your employees reflect the diversity of your surrounding community. Reducing barriers to employment for women and people of color helps to ensure that you are drawing top talent from the largest pool possible. Ensuring pay equity and equal advancement policies across racial and gender lines signals to all employees that they have opportunities for long-term growth, critical to creating a sustainable workforce.

Natural resource sustainability is embedded in most corporate business models, as employers have learned that they can “do well by doing good” for the environment. Similar shifts toward human resource sustainability can create shared value while making your company one of the top places to work.

Elizabeth Kennedy is associate professor of law and social responsibility at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.

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