Have you heard of something called “ecosystem services”? I looked it up after listening to a podcast episode recently in which the man being interviewed, Jeremy Lent, was talking about how dangerous this concept has become.
Ecosystem services, I learned, are the ways that we monetize the benefits we receive from Nature. It’s the way we assign value to things like the fresh air that trees provide, the water purification process of wetlands, or the benefits we receive from natural resources like timber, coal, etc.
This concept started innocently enough, according to Jeremy, and with good intentions. Activists who wanted to protect the environment could see the havoc wreaked upon it by resource extraction, climate change, and much more. Rather than just resist it, they’ve tried to play along by demonstrating Nature’s value in the same terms used by those that are destroying it: Economics. Capital. Money. They intended to make a business case for saving the environment.
But can we really assign a dollar amount to the Forest, or the Ocean, or the Arctic?. We like to think we can evaluate everything and sort out what’s useful or useless, but there are things that cannot be assessed in that way.
If your only strategy is to demonstrate a resource’s potential profitability, what happens when its destruction becomes more profitable? In the same podcast episode, Jeremy uses the example of a coral reef. If a coral reef is valued at, say, $40 million but a developer can make the case that a new waterfront hotel (which would destroy the reef) would generate $240 million in profit, what strategy is left? None - it becomes a race to the bottom.
As I was listening to the episode and in my subsequent exploration of this dangerous cycle, I couldn’t help but see similarities to the way that many well-meaning people have framed the value of employee engagement.
We all see the same problem: 70% of U.S. employees are disengaged. It’s real, and it’s causing a lot of pain in and out of our organizations.
Billions of dollars are spent every year on engagement initiatives like more training, company retreats, snazzy snack bars, and much more. And that money is given away hand over fist because executives are told that it will result in more profit for them and their shareholders.
How many of these equations look familiar to you?
Happier workers = increased productivity (more money)
Employee engagement = increased customer retention (more money)
Better talent = greater market share (more money)
I think what we all know (but might be afraid to admit) is that making a business case for employee engagement is usually a waste of time because the value of employees can’t be measured in dollars.
“The total value of biodiversity is infinite,” according to JM Salles (2011). “[S]o having debate about what is the total value of nature is actually pointless because we can't live without it” (here's a link to there original article).
We can’t live without employees, either. I know we pretend that’s the future of automation, but that can only be true if we forget that employees are people.
Even if our current jobs fade away and become automated, our desire for more meaningful, healthy, Earth-friendly lives will demand new forms of work. More evolved forms of work, I hope, where our value is not determined by how many widgets we produce or how long we can sit at our desk, but by the creative and unique ways we contribute to the betterment of our world.
Trying to make a business case for something like equity and inclusion is akin to an environmentalist showing us that we could save more money by destroying less of the old-growth forest this year. While that can seem like an admirable effort, it leads us down a destructive path where we only assign value to things that benefit us (or those in power) in short-term, tangible, individual ways.
A forest is valuable in and of itself, whether humans walk this earth or not. A forest is not valuable because of what it offers us. It’s valuable because it’s a living, breathing part of this Earth.
Employees are valuable in and of themselves, too, because we are human beings. Human beings aren’t valuable just because they can work for a corporation. We’re intrinsically valuable because we are also living, breathing parts of this Earth.
Making a business case for treating employees better is a waste of precious time and energy; not only because an engaged employee’s worth is beyond the scope of monetization, but also because making the business case can end up hurting our cause.
If you argue that by introducing unlimited vacation time, your workers will produce 30% more widgets, what happens if they only produce 10% more widgets?
Or what if in the first year, people are so exhausted that they take extra time and the company actually loses money? Because of the argument you’ve made that the company would see an increase in profitability or market share, you’d find yourself in a real pickle with the executive team.
If you’re reading this piece, you recognize on some level that the value of treating people well in the workplace is unquantifiable and is a noble endeavor in and of itself.
You don’t need a business case. You have a moral case to do right by workers, and you’ll still have that no matter what happens to the bottom line.
I know this sounds idealistic. I know many of you might already be thinking things like:
“You have to speak the language of those who hold the purse strings.”
“You have to tie your strategic objectives to the bottom line.”
“If the business goes under because we control people less, what happens to the employees then?”
“Isn’t it better that they at least have jobs? Employee engagement is just a luxury for people who work in tech.”
I get all that. For years, I’ve watched the field of Human Resources obsess over the question of how to make a business case for what they do. There are webinars, workshops, and articles galore about why it’s important to prove HR’s value to the C-suite.
The pursuit to answer that question is disempowering to HR professionals and it’s unfair to employees who deserve healthy workplaces regardless of whether or not it results in more profit.
How has the business case really helped us, anyway? It’s turned us into people who beg for scraps of understanding from those who hold power in organizations.
And how does that begging ultimately help employees? How does that help us expand our options and generate innovative ways to create more inclusive workplaces? It doesn’t. It turns the value of employee engagement into a “yes/no” proposition, and if we hear a “no,” our only option is to swallow it so that we’re not caught bad-mouthing the organization’s leadership.
If you are someone who cares about treating people well at work, I invite you to set aside the question of how to prove its monetary value.
Play around with some of these ideas:
Instead of spending time trying to figure out how to prove the value of your efforts to treat people with more dignity, what if you just did more good work?
What if you gave yourself permission to not care about the “business case” anymore?
Who would you be if you never had to argue for the time or resources to treat employees respectably?
I encourage you to try doing that no matter what kind of organization you’re in. And if you can’t - if the environment is just too resistant - I super-duper encourage you to get out and into an environment where you can make a real difference for people.
And you know what? It’s actually okay if organizations who can’t see the intrinsic value of employee engagement go under and close their doors.
That will happen anyway, naturally, as more of us demand a worklife that does not cost us the rest of our lives. Why not speed up the process a little so that fewer people have to suffer as cogs in big machines?
Why not refuse to make a business case, explain why you can’t, and get back to the work that’s free to do anyway, like having empathy, practicing transparency, and empowering employees to ask for what they need?
If this feels hard, or new, or totally whacky, it’s probably because we’ve all been conditioned to think of ourselves in terms of the value we can produce. Many of us are still seduced by the story that our worth is reflected in how much people pay us for our labor. This story goes deep, and it shapes the way we view one another, especially in a professional context.
I can’t promise that you’ll profit in any tangible way by stepping out of this “business case” mindset we’ve all been in for so many years; but I can promise that if this idea feels resonant to you, taking aligned action will result in a sense of integrity that’s beyond financial assessment.
If nothing else, chew on this idea for a little while. Let it live in you and see what happens.
If and when you feel ready, push back the next time someone asks you to make a business case for what you know is the right thing to do for employees.
Whenever possible, revel in the infinite value of the hearts and minds of people around you, as if they themselves make up their own ancient and magical old-growth forest.