8 Great Ways to Increase Employee Engagement in Sustainability

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What can you learn from the CEO of a leading company committed to sustainability about engaging employees?

Quite a bit, actually!

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, co-wrote a great article published in the Fall 2016 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review that describes eight ways to engage employees to create a sustainable business.

As he notes, most businesses are coming around to the fact that sustainability is critical. However, they haven’t yet figured out how to engage all employees in the company’s day-to-day sustainability activities:

Besides the financial benefits that sustainability practices like energy conservation provide, studies have found that employee retention, productivity, and overall engagement all go up. Nevertheless, it is hard for companies to operationalize sustainability goals, even when the people working for these companies, including their leaders, care about sustainability in the world. The problem is that not enough companies have yet figured out how to link their employees’ values and support for sustainability with the employees’ daily work and the company’s operations. In other words, it’s not in the why but in the how of embedding sustainability where the gap lies.”

His recommended strategies are great, and they’re in line with what I’ve previously been told by experts about engaging employees in sustainability.

These are his recommendations:

Image credit: http://ssir.org/articles/entry/engaging_employees_to_create_a_sustainable_business

However, Polman’s article – which is well worth reading – provides examples from corporate America, examples that may not be as relevant for small businesses that don’t have 150,000 employees around the world. Nevertheless, the strategies can be easily applied to small businesses as well.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can implement each of these practices in your own small business (note that the italicized introductions to each section are drawn directly from Polman’s article).

Define the company's long term purpose

“The first way to erase the conflict that people can feel between their work duties and their personal values is to stress the long-term interests of the company, which are undoubtedly more aligned with the good of society and the planet.”

Ultimately, one of the best ways to align an employee’s personal values with the company’s values is to look at what is in the best interests of the company in the long-term.

A company has to make money to remain in business, but it can do so in a way that follows the triple bottom line, taking into account people and the planet, not just profit.

Once a company begins to think beyond just profit and look at the long-term, it can easily run into a question that is not easily answered:

“Why does this company exist?”

As we move into the purpose economy, companies that want to remain relevant and competitive will need to be able to answer this question.

B Corps, for instance, represent a growing, international movement of companies that are united in their belief that the power of business can and should be harnessed as a force for good. Greyston Bakery, a Certified B Corp, provides one of the best examples of a profitable business with a social purpose, as their motto has famously been, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.”

Basically, you can get employees to show up just to collect a paycheck, but you engage them when they understand the broader meaning and purpose of the work that they do.

Spell out the economic case for sustainability.

“Helping employees see the economic case for operating in a more sustainable way is not always easy, but it is crucial; otherwise, people will think that sustainability is just about ‘doing good’ and not also about ‘doing well.'”

While the triple bottom line recognizes the importance of environmental stewardship and social responsibility, a business has to be profitable in order to keep the doors open. Being able to make the business case for sustainability initiatives is critical throughout the company.

For employees, it’s often necessary in order to get buy-in from management for projects, and for management, it’s important in order to get buy-in from employees.

For every sustainability initiative you consider, you can look at how will this benefit the company – will it reduce expenses, or help you to expand into a new market? Will it help you to position the company as an innovative business relative to its competitors?

Ultimately, if employees can see how it will benefit the company – which in turn benefits them with stable, meaningful employment – then they’ll be more likely to support your sustainability program.

Create sustanability knowledge and competence.

“Sustainability cuts across all aspects of a business, from energy consumption to procurement. To bolster the “can do” belief and attitude among employees, it is important to invest in educating employees about sustainability as well as to create systems and processes that make it easier for employees to integrate sustainability into their business decisions.”

Providing sustainability training to employees is an important step towards creating a culture of sustainability.

After all, employees need to understand what sustainability is and why it’s important in order to be able to support the company’s sustainability initiatives effectively.

For small businesses, this training can take place in different ways, including a mix of internal and external resources.

For example, you can host a monthly “lunch and learn” talk on a different topic related to business sustainability or show sustainability videos and then have a group discussion afterwards. You can also establish a small training budget that allows employees to attend conferences, seminars, or online trainings (be sure to then ask the employees to share what they learned with coworkers at one of the monthly lunches).

In addition to making sustainability training a regular part of the employee experience, you’ll also want to create systems and processes that help them to take what they’re learning and apply it in their own work.

Two simple ways to do this would be to have the employees help create relevant policies for the company or by integrating sustainability into the decision-making framework that you already use for identifying new projects.

Make every employee a sustainability champion

“Every successful company shares one thing in common: strong leadership. And nowhere is that more important than in creating a sustainable company…(but) it’s not enough to have sustainability champions at the top—they must be cultivated at all levels and geographies of the organization.”

For a company to be truly sustainable, you need to make sure that everyone – from the CEO to rank-and-file employees – are on board with sustainability.

Without support from the CEO, employees may not have the resources or direction to implement a sustainability program. Conversely, without support from employees, a CEO may find that their vision falters due to lack of implementation.

To get everyone on board with sustainability, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve implemented all of the steps that we’ve covered so far: have a clear purpose, understand the business case, and provide training.

Once employees understand the company’s long-term purpose and the business case for sustainability and have received relevant training, then every employee in the company will be in a position to help with the company’s sustainability program.

Cocoreate sustainable practices with employees

“Another important way of embedding sustainability in a company is to engage employees in the cocreation of sustainable practices. And a way to do this is to act on employee initiatives.”

This is one of the best practices when it comes to engaging employees in sustainability: give them a voice in creating the company’s sustainability program!

I recently surveyed a few experts about employee engagement strategies, and this was one of the top recommendations. When employees are given the opportunity to create your company’s sustainability initiative – rather than having directives handed down from on high – you’ll have automatic buy-in.

One of the best ways to do this is to create a green team. A green team will give your employees a place to share their ideas and make decisions regarding which ones to implement.

You can also look at other ways of getting input, whether it be from having people share ideas during staff meetings or by sending out an employee survey.

Encourage healthy competition among employees

“An effective way for an organization to embrace a new set of goals and foster an “I should do it” spirit throughout the company is to create a culture of healthy competition among employees. Competition stimulates creativity, and the skills that spur competition—a willingness to push boundaries, trust group members, and collectively solve problems—are the same skills needed for innovating on the sustainability front.”

Creating healthy competition can not only help you to reach your goals, but can also make the process a fun one for employees!

One way to do this, while also building teamwork and collaboration, might include establishing a prize that everyone will receive or share in if the company meets a sustainability goal.

For example, if the office reduces waste or reduces energy usage by 25%, the company will host a company picnic or take a group trip to a baseball game or other fun event (of course, you should let employees pick the prize!).

Another way to do this would be to recognize employees who come up with creative ideas or contribute to the company’s sustainability goals. Depending upon the size of the company, this might be done on a monthly basis or annual basis.

Make sustainability visible inside and outisde the company

“Several social cognition models point to the important role that visibility and salience play in changing people’s beliefs and attitudes and influencing behavior. Measuring and communicating progress on key sustainability indicators always attracts people’s focus.”

Announcing that sustainability is important but then not doing anything about it is a recipe for failure.

To truly embed sustainability throughout your organization, you’ll need to make it visible.

One way that you can do this is to have clear metrics and goals that you are tracking and then sharing that with everyone in the office, whether it’s by posting updates in the employee break room, making it a regular agenda item at meetings, or posting it on the company intranet. People should understand what you’re doing to be sustainable and how you’re making progress.

Lastly, be sure to celebrate successes! If you hit one of your goals, have the entire company participate in the celebration.

Showcase higher purpose by creating transformational change

“While external engagement is a critical component of transitioning to a sustainable business, it is also key to building credibility and legitimacy, and consequently pride and identification, with employees.”

Here, we come back to where we started: purpose.

While the first step captured the need for understanding the company’s long-term purpose, this step is really about how that purpose gets manifested in bringing about real change in the world.

For example, a company can focus on actively driving change throughout its supply chain by helping suppliers develop more sustainable products and services, perhaps by being willing to test and provide feedback so that the supplier can then roll out the newer product to other companies.

Or perhaps a company can take part in industry associations and share some examples of their sustainability programs in order to help others.

Some people might think that it would hurt the company to share information with their competitors. In reality, though, the company will be seen as an industry leader. And, because it’s already farther along its sustainability journey than its competitors are, it will be in a position to continue to innovate and be at the forefront of new opportunities.

Next Steps

Begin a discussion within your company about how you can implement these steps at your company and start a green team if you don’t have one already. It will take time – this is definitely not something that can be done quickly – but the investment of time and effort now will allow you to lay the groundwork for the development of a sustainable company that will harness the energy and passion of its employees to truly make a difference.