How do you know if employee engagement is working?

Employee engagement is a powerful tool for integrating environmental thinking into company operations. With our ongoing work at GreenBiz.com's Engaging Employees / Green Teams microsite, we're providing case studies, CEO perspectives, and practical advice for leveraging a company's most critical asset -- their employees.

But how do you know when your efforts are working? We decided to ask the 3,000+ members of the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel (you can sign up to join the panel here) how they could tell their efforts were paying off. We received responses from 236 panel members who shared their company's perspective on employee surveys. They let us know if they included questions about sustainability and, perhaps most importantly, what they've learned in the process.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

We asked our panel members whether or not their company conducted employee surveys and more specifically whether those surveys included questions about the company's sustainability initiatives. While 69 percent of the companies participating in our survey have revenues greater than $1 billion, there was very little difference in the responses between large and small companies.

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It's hard to decide if it's surprising that 29 percent of our survey respondents did not survey their own employees on a regular basis. Employee surveys done poorly can come off as intrusive and with no obvious follow-on activity their usefulness can be seen as demoralizing rather than energizing.

That said, 50 percent of our respondents are asking about sustainability either as part of a more comprehensive employee survey or in a dedicated sustainability survey. As a potential indicator of the seriousness with which they view these surveys, 44 percent of those who conduct employee surveys use an outside firm while 52 percent use an on-line tool (4 percent didn't know).

Hot Topics and Lessons Learned

We asked our panel members to tell us the top two or three things they've learned from conducting employee surveys. The number-one item is the level of awareness by their employees when it comes to the company's sustainability efforts. As one panel member noted, "We survey them on our level of commitment and their level of awareness of our sustainability programs."

This metric reflects another lesson learned by a few of these respondents. One panel member reported, "Employees see sustainability as an important business or social benefit but that there has been so many overhyped green claims…they do not know what to believe." Another noted, "Our employees want to be informed about what sustainability is more than have us ask what sustainability means to them at this point."

While that may seem discouraging, it is an opening for greater employee engagement, a theme echoed by numerous responses. "[Our employees] want to learn more but want the messaging in easy sound bytes that they can remember. They want constant accessibility to information and prefer that we not bombard them with messaging. They are most interested in local efforts -- what's in it for me and my direct community."

Several other panel members identified the importance of sustainability efforts as part of overall employee satisfaction. One respondent quantified some of their findings from a recent survey. "Eighty-nine percent of our employees view it as important for us to pursue sustainability. Sixty-five percent see it as contributing directly to our goals. [In our surveys] women are more favorable towards sustainability than men. Asia-Pacific and Japan employees are more favorable than EMEA [Europe, Middle East, and Africa] and the US. And young employees are more favorable to sustainability than older employees."

Perhaps the biggest benefit of surveying employees is to learn where you need to focus your efforts, as one panelist related how "we are including sustainability-related questions in the all employee engagement survey for the first time -- coming up in Q2 2012. From past surveys we learned that 29 percent of respondents answered neutral or "don't know" on the one question related to their belief that our company is responsive to our business' impacts on the environment. This data validated the need for more education and awareness activities."

Employee surveys can be a risk if the results don't lead to actions. But according to one of our panel members "Substantive and credible sustainability efforts by the company make our employees feel proud of where they work."

Survey photo via Shutterstock.