Is Employee Engagement Overrated?

Talent Show

Is Employee Engagement Overrated?

Welcome to the first post in "Talent Show," a new GreenBiz column about the intersection of human resources (HR) and sustainability. Enormous opportunities exist for cross-collaboration between the human resources function and the sustainability function. The goal is to share industry trends and best practices in the collaboration between sustainability and HR.

"Talent Show" is not about employee engagement. In fact, I have some criticisms about employee engagement that I wanted to get out of the way so that future articles can get down to celebrations, best practices and innovations.

I come to this topic having spent the past 15 years engaged with companies of all sizes and sectors in their sustainability leadership quest. I am inspired more by the people who do the work than the work itself. I am interested in the leaders, the supporters, the motivators, those who hold the power, those who hold the purse strings, and how they all influence one another.

As a result, I am deeply interested in the intersection of sustainability and HR. When I share this interest with sustainability professionals, their response is often, "Oh, you mean employee engagement, right?" They might not notice my ears getting a little red but I frown at reducing the sustainability-HR intersection to mere employee engagement.

It is so much more.

Simply put, employee engagement is overrated.

Too often I see employee engagement translated into "simple things you can do:" turning off the lights, double-sided printing, powering down your computer. While such things can engender significant savings when everyone takes part, it's a far cry from culture shift.

The challenge for sustainability professionals and employee engagement specialists in particular, is an over-focus on the metrics. Doesn't that go against the entire notion of sustainability itself? That sustainability is a journey with no end? That short-term focus will get you nowhere?

Metrics have a trickle-down effect. They are set by senior leaders. The chief sustainability officer is under pressure to meet them. He needs the employees on board to realize the goals. So the employee engagement piece becomes more about meeting the goals than changing the culture. This is why engagement programs often go astray.

When employee engagement turns into light bulbs and printers it becomes superficial. The light bulbs are the low-hanging fruit, but what comes next?

By my reckoning, a lot. HR has a huge role to play in sustainability beyond these "simple things." Human resources is the catalyst for embedding sustainability into systems, performance, and culture.

As such, "engaging" should be about buy-in, innovation, and ownership -- not a paternalistic effort to rally the troops. It should be about nothing less than changing the culture.

Next page: Some of the companies that are doing employee engagement well.

There are many examples of companies that do this well. For example, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, developed a program that embodies and perpetuates the company's Purpose and Principles. Employees participate in "source trips" visiting coffee producer communities. Source trips award employees for their hard work, increase an employee's loyalty to the company, and increase employee's understanding of the entire supply chain.

Another good example is EMC. Their Chief Sustainability Officer, Kathrin Winkler, shared her own theory for creating change: "My theory is that we should be reaching people, not by "converting" them, but by igniting them -- by helping them discover for themselves why those things they care most about are enriched by adding a sustainability perspective."

Two such "ignition" examples are the EcoKids Contest and the Environmental Stewardship Award. She recently blogged about the ripple effects of their EcoKids Contest. What started out as a project to engage employee's families lead to employee's insights about their children's passion for the environment. They also run an Innovation Conference encouraging employees to develop new ideas. Awards are granted in Social Innovation (developing low cost storage platform for applications in developing countries) and Sustainability Awards (greener packaging proposal). These awards spark great thinking and valuable results.

Achieving culture shift and behavior change takes time, patience and CEO buy-in. Perhaps we should approach employee engagement as one of many tools to ensure sustainability, instead of using sustainability as a doppelganger for happy employees.

More on that in future columns.

What's your company's HR success? What is cits biggest challenge? I welcome your comments and questions below.