Volunteering can take many forms: companies are seeing the benefit of offering employees chances to work on social projects.

Story highlights

Companies with strong sustainability programs seen as popular

Jobs that are 'flexible' and 'meaningful' increasingly attractive

Opportunities to work for the greater good a benefit for companies and individuals

CNN  — 

Experts agree: employees want to work for the good guys. And if companies want to attract and keep top talent, corporate social responsibility (CSR) matters.

But as it turns out, just working for one of the “good guys” is no longer enough; employees want to be good guys, too. Companies like Patagonia and Levi’s are considered top of the game when it comes to corporate social responsibility. They take it seriously, and try to take their responsibility through their supply lines.

“For today’s ‘millennials’ entering the workforce engagement in sustainability is a must-have, not a nice-to-have,” says Kellie McElhaney, director at the Center for Responsible Business, Haas School of Business, University of Berkeley.

“They don’t want to be told what the company is doing. They want to do it.”

Don’t be surprised to see more CSR projects popping up at offices near you. Employee engagement and CSR is a hot topic, and if you are wondering why, the answer may be in the numbers.

In a Society for Human Resources Management study, companies with strong sustainability programs were compared to companies with poor programs. The former had 55% better morale, 43% more efficient businesses processes, 43% stronger public image, and 38% better employee loyalty.

“CSR has proven to be one of top ways to keep people engaged and right now employee engagement levels are at an all time low,” says McElhaney, also author of Just Good Business: the Strategic guide to aligning corporate responsibility.

“The top two criteria young people put on job selection today is ‘flexible’ and ‘meaningful,’” she says. “We are looking for purpose. And these kids will go work for a non-profit or some sort of social enterprise to get it.”

Mary Cullinane, executive vice president of corporate affairs and social responsibility at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, agrees: “My social upbringing was four or five blocks around my house. Their social awareness has no limit. So they start to be concerned about things outside their neighborhood and outside their block.”

Some online initiatives are tapping into that desire to spend time working for the greater good. VolunteerMatch.org allows employees to connect to local non-profits and tracks the time spent working for them. In 2011, they logged more than 5.5 million hours of volunteering by employees from a network of major companies including Gap, Wal-Mart, and Morgan Stanley.

“We are just getting rolling,” says Greg Baldwin, president of VolunteerMatch.org.

“There is no doubt in our experience that corporations are taking their employee engagement strategies more seriously, and they are using technology to make it smarter and more effective.”

At UnitedHealth Group, the VolunteerMatch.org program enables employees to log-on and help non-profits during breaks and spare time even for as little as 15 minutes. The tasks include things like client management and web and software development.

Kate Rubin, vice president of social responsibility at UnitedHealth Group, says the program is very popular.

“We employ 99,000 people around the globe, and in the past year, 79% of our workers and 97% of our executives volunteered, putting us in an elite group of companies of our size,” she says.

At Discovery Communications, the Discovery Impact: Creating Change program- also brings the specific talent of their workforce into play. Once a year, during a 12-hour-long day, employees put their specific skills to use at non-profits.

“It’s a way to engage their creativity in a different way,” says Michelle Russo, Discovery’s senior vice president of corporate communications. As an added benefit, she notes that it brings people together from different departments.

Mindful that volunteering could simply be seen as a passing trend and good public relations for companies, businesses are keen to highlight the longer term benefits.

In 2010 sustainability accounting firm Ekos International was commissioned by Nike and Hewlett Packard to do a study on the strategic importance of employee engagement and CSR.

“What we found was that it is critical for competitive advantage and companies are seeing this as a way to improve their performance,” says Cynthia Figge, co-founder of Ekos International.

It is also a key component in keeping ambitious and quality employees.

“There is no doubt it impacts bottom line in terms of employee retention and attraction,” says Russo. “We don’t lose productivity, we gain it. 80% of our employees volunteer. If we ever stopped it, they would revolt.”

Many believe the case for CSR is not just internal, but together with price and quality, it could be the one of the top three qualities needed for a successful company’s brand development. A study from earlier this year by public relations firm Edelman found that 87% of consumers around the world believe corporations should place at least equal weight on business and society.

“Some companies are just starting to understand the benefits of having their employees understand the internal CSR field,” says Chris Coulter, president of Globescan, a research consultancy on reputation, brand sustainability and trends.

“To be a good employer is important, even to customers.”