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 employee engagement by harnessing and building momentum, and integrating sustainability with the business.
This is the second in a series of posts on employee engagement describing what I consider to be three stages to full employee engagement; leading from the top, generating momentum and harnessing momentum.
I previously addressed the issue of engaging employees through the first step of demonstrating strong leadership from the top. Step two is to help build momentum throughout the organization.
I am often asked how I get employees to participate in supporting sustainability and CR programs. For the most part I find that people want to take action. In fact, if anything there is pent up demand. I just need to give them ‘permission’ and some framework for what they want to do.
BT has Carbon Clubs as a way to bring colleagues together to discuss climate change issues. Once a part of the BT carbon club, employees are able to share knowledge and ideas with colleagues and take action together. Similar to our program, Walmart has Personal Sustainability Projects. These programs were developed by employees as an outlet for them to embrace sustainability. The characteristics of these and other frameworks are very similar;
Empower – enable cross functional teams to form
Seed ideas – provide forums and gathering points through social networking and recognize with publicity and awards.
A couple of characteristics that I would add to the two above include:
Be flexible with boundaries – for example support activities that might impact carbon footprint outside of work if that is what folks want to focus on. I was briefed a year or so ago on a great example of a grass roots carbon club initiative at our Adastral Park research center. The team arranged to borrow a fleet of electric bikes from a vendor, put a charging station on the campus and loaned the bikes out to employees to try out two weeks at a time. Interested employees could then make their own arrangements to buy a bike instead of driving if that worked for them.
Allow the trivial – Three years ago and new in the role, I discouraged people who wanted to replace the paper in the photocopier and eliminate Styrofoam cups. We run massive data centers. Styrofoam cups and the paper in the office copier are simply not material and divert attention from what is. I have changed my views on that approach. Most BT employees never see the inside of a data center, but they do see the cups in the canteen and paper in the copier. Our people build their trust in their employer’s position from what they see, possibly more than from what they are told in corporate communications. So supporting the visible is important, even if it is trivial. And then, when those people have an opportunity in their jobs to influence something material they will take the right actions.
Adding these characteristics to your framework will help your organization to build momentum and engage employees in the process.
I see employee engagement as having two roles; as an end in itself and as a mechanism to achieve change.
As an end in itself, employee engagement serves to improve morale and enhance retention and recruitment. In that respect, the first role can be accomplished through leadership from the top and building momentum, both of which I’ve addressed. But for the second role, as a vehicle to achieve change in support of the organizations overall CR objectives we need to harness that momentum.
Whereas building momentum calls for flexibility across business boundaries and what I termed ‘allowing the trivial’, harnessing momentum is the time to leverage this energy without losing it.
So, how do you harness momentum? I have used three interrelated approaches outlined below to help achieve this:
- How the Individual Fits – Help the individual understand how their contribution fits into the whole. Look for ways to draw a quantified linkage between action as an individual and the objectives of the organization. In an ideal world our people will know what activities have to occur, and by when, to meet corporate responsibility targets, so they can put their actions in context.
- Materiality – action on trivial impacts help build momentum. It is not necessary to stop those activities, but when harnessing the momentum it is the time to help people understand where the material business impacts are and how they can influence those impacts.
- Functional Application – challenge the business units in the company to examine how they can impact the organization’s sustainability objectives within their core business activities and use the feedback from that to breakdown the objectives into functionally appropriate targets and objectives.
Earlier this week I attended an office party in our New York office catered wonderfully by one of our CSR partners, Project Renewal. I was humbled when two graduates of Project Renewal’s Culinary Arts Training Program told me what a great boost it was to their confidence to be invited in to speak to and work with us. But what great boost our own people get from organizing and participating in these programs. Joe Murphy, a colleague who volunteers with Project Renewal told me that every time he volunteers “I feel better than the person who gets the free meal.”
As corporate responsibility practitioners we must make sure that we harness this momentum to enable real change in underlying problems and not allow it to be a pressure release valve that enables us to allow the underlying problems to perpetuate.
Some Last Thoughts
Global sensitivity is one area that is on my radar all the time as I am the CR lead for a regional operation. Be sensitive to global differences. This could be the topic of a whole series of posts itself but I will save that for another time. The key question is centralized versus decentralized. I recommend tending towards centralized and line of business control for environmental projects, but for social and economic initiatives to tend towards global guidelines and plenty of local discretion on a geographic basis.
What about the skeptics? – I wrote a post on this some time ago and I stand by what I said in that post that we should not dismiss skeptics. In “Legal Doesn’t Equal Sustainable,” I commented on the conflict between sustainability and the advocacy based approach of our legal and political systems that require each side to demonize the other. I think that in the climate change space we have moved into that demonizing mode and as sustainability practitioners we should be setting a better example.
Much has been written on the topic recently. I will end with some other resources worth looking at:
- A recent Green Biz/Green Impact Collaboration http://www.greenbiz.com/research/report/2009/12/03/green-teams-engaging-employees-sustainability
- NEEF’s engaged organization report http://www.neefusa.org/business/report_2009.htm
- From Jagan Nemani at Speak Energy http://www.speakenergy.com/wp-uploads/Engaging-Employees-in-Environmental-Sustainability.pdf
© 2010, Kevin_Moss. All rights reserved. Do not republish.