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Employee Engagement and Sustainability

Sustainability engages employees/Engaged employees create sustainable companies



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According to a recent Gallup poll “The world has an employee engagement crisis, with serious and potentially lasting repercussions for the global economy.” With so many organizations focused on employee engagement, why do only 32% of U.S. employees say they are enthusiastic about and committed to their work, and worldwide only 13% of employees say they are engaged?

One of the reasons is to do with purpose. It has become an axiom of management thinkers that providing purpose is a key to creating an engaged and productive workforce. We would all like our working lives to have a higher purpose that goes beyond turning up to work and earning an income, and this is where sustainability comes in. Companies that focus on sustainability practices can resolve the tension people feel between their personal values and their work by providing a higher purpose.

Unilever, with an employee rating of 87%, is one organization that has got this message and is bucking the trend. In a recent article ESMT professor CB Bhattacharya and Unilever CEO Paul Polman draw on the Unilever experience to show how the key to creating a vibrant and sustainable company is to find ways to get all employees—from top executives to assembly line workers—personally engaged in day-to-day corporate sustainability efforts.

CB Bhattacharya is the Pietro Ferrero Chair in Sustainability, and Founding Director of the Center for Sustainable Business. In this edited extract from a related article he proposes these eight action points:

1) Define the company’s long-term purpose. Why does the company do what it does? Leaders should ask this question and share the answers with employees. For Unilever, the purpose is to simply make ‘sustainable living commonplace’. Thinking about the social purpose that a company serves enables employees to latch onto that higher purpose and use the company as a means to express their values, which in turn, creates meaning in and at work.

2) Spell out the economic case for sustainability. Research has shown that truly sustainable business is profitable business and it helps the cause to share this knowledge with employees. Take the case of IBM’s pursuit of energy efficiency. Through its decades-long energy conservation program, IBM has demonstrated that smart energy management is good for the environment and good for business, because each kilowatt of electricity not consumed avoids greenhouse gas emissions and improves IBM’s bottom line.

3) Create sustainable knowledge and competence. To bolster the ‘can do’ belief 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 them to integrate sustainability into their business decisions. Many sustainability initiatives require specialized knowledge and expertise — such as talking to suppliers about sustainable sourcing or using an eco-efficiency tool to evaluate a new product. 

4) Make every employee a sustainability champion. Leadership is key to embedding the sustainable business model and the process typically starts with the CEO getting his/her leadership team on board. However, it is not enough to have sustainability champions at the top — they must be cultivated at all levels of the organization. Unilever has sustainability ‘ambassadors’ throughout the organization. As a result, 76% of Unilever’s 170,000 employees feel their role at work enables them to contribute to delivering to the sustainability agenda.

5) Co-create sustainable practices with employees. A great way to embed sustainability in a company is to act on employee initiatives. Companies get more and better ideas when they bubble up from the bottom. Once company employees begin to see the positive impact and economic returns on social and environmental investments that they helped create, they start believing that they do have a role to play, and the ideas start to flow. For example, at Marks & Spencer an employee’s idea that received support from the board and achieved great success was to have clothes-recycling boxes in its stores that provide income for Oxfam.

6) 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 is to create a culture of healthy competition among employees. For example, an initiative at BASF provides every employee with an opportunity to join a team, develop a corporate volunteering project in one of three core BASF areas. All employees worldwide are then able to vote for their favourite projects and the top 150 are funded.

7) Make sustainability visible inside and outside the company. Measuring and communicating progress on key sustainability indicators always attracts people’s focus as we typically want to succeed in the dimensions we are measured on. To keep visibility high and reinforce the idea that achievements in sustainability are meaningful for the company, it is also important to celebrate success when goals are reached or awards won (such as category leadership in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index).

8) Showcase the higher purpose by creating transformational change. No company can go it alone and we need to learn to collaborate with traditional competitors to solve thorny environmental and social issues. Doing this fosters a sense of unity among employees because they see that achieving sustainability is not just about themselves, or even their own company, but rather a societal issue with

Read the article by Professor CB Bhattacharya and Unilever CEO Paul Polman here.


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