We should engage employees because they are a key stakeholder group. They have the primary impact on the performance of the company in any particular corporate responsibility pillar and they have an impact through their actions outside of the workplace. We will look at engaging at the leadership level and integrating sustainability with the business.
This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of employee engagement. It expands on my participation in a panel at BSR 09 a a short time ago with Christopher Corpuel, Vice President, Sustainability at Hilton Hotels and Silvia Garrigo, Manager of Global Issues and Policy at Chevron. Silvia talked about engaging at the leadership level and Chris addressed integrating sustainability with the business. My focus was on engaging employees.
But we should start with the question, why do any employee engagement at all? Employees are a key stakeholder group. They have the primary impact on the performance of the company in any particular corporate responsibility pillar and they have an impact through their actions outside of the workplace. The Green IT survey we did last year identified that companies are able to lead the views or our employees towards a more positive approach to acting on climate change. So there is a rationale for companies to take action to engage employees on sustainability topics which they consider important – it makes a difference. The survey also identified that employees take more action at home than at work, so there is also room for improvement.
While I use carbon emissions and climate change primarily for examples, the steps apply equally to all pillars of corporate responsibility. And though I present them as a series of steps, in practice most examples I come across are implemented in parallel. Initiatives rarely start from a standing start and who wants to wait anyway! In three subsequent posts I will describe what I consider to be three stages to full employee engagement; leading from the top, generate momentum and harness momentum.
The first step is to demonstrate leadership and commitment from the top. It is often stated as a foundational requirement for employee engagement, but can be hard to attain as illustrated by the many times I am asked the question , so how did you get your leadership team to support this?
I see an interesting tension between attaining true leadership for an issue while resisting the pressure for the company to change its CR priorities according to the CR priorities of the senior most leadership.
I have observed four characteristics that help distinguish true leadership for a sustainability theme.
Policy – a clearly articulated company position on the issue that includes definition of the extent of its effects on society and on the company, the cause, and the role the company has in mitigation and perhaps adaptation.
Targets – output related targets presented within the context of resolving the issue.
Names – named and visible members of the leadership team who back the policy and associated programs.
Engagement – Skin in the game through visible engagement by members of the leadership team. Examples from BT include Ben Verwayan’s active chairing of the Climate Change Task Force of the Confederation of British Industry as CEO of BT and Sir Michael Rake’s active role as chair of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
Historically, when corporate responsibility was philanthropy, the corporate CR theme was often set by the personal priorities of the most senior leaders of the company. An individual felt strongly about a particular theme and so philanthropic donations to that theme did well under their leadership. Today, enlightened companies have integrated corporate responsibility and sustainability into their business. One test of a good sustainability pillar is that it meets the changing needs of society and the changing role of the business in society, but resists change purely due to a change of leadership.
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