To get employee buy-in, skip the CEO and see the manager

If you’re struggling to engage employees in your CSR goals, focus on their immediate supervisors.

Researchers David Cantor, Paula Morrow and Frank Montabon discovered that the employees who work hardest to achieve environmental goals are also the ones who believe it matters to their boss.

“The findings confirm what we know intuitively,” said Dave Robitaille, manager of citizenship and corporate affairs for IBM. “I've always operated by the adage: 'What interests the boss, fascinates me.' So research showing immediate manager interest in CSR outweighs that of the CEO makes perfect sense.”

Professor Cantor and his colleagues studied employees in the supply chain division of a global retailer. They measured the impact that employees’ perceptions of the company’s commitment to sustainability had on the employees’ own commitment to and effort toward the firm’s environmental goals. Corporate commitment was measured according to supervisor support for the goals, company training programs and rewards.

If the boss cares, I care

To measure supervisor support, the researchers had employees respond to questions like: “My supervisor provides me with useful advice related to eco-initiatives.” Employees who were more likely to respond to the question affirmatively were more likely to perceive their company as placing a high value on sustainability. These employees were also more likely to characterize themselves as “really committed to our environmental activities” and more likely to have actively sought a solution to an environmental problem facing the company.

The findings are grounded in “organization support theory,” which states that employees seek a relationship of reciprocity with their employers. The more an employee believes the firm is committed to a goal -- by providing the necessary encouragement and tools -- the more the employee will respond to that goal with increased commitment and effort.

“In my experience in corporate citizenship, I've found that hand-to-hand dissemination of information is key, just as in many marketing campaigns,” said Robitaille. “People listen to and take advice from people they trust -- more so than from slogans or campaigns. And while employees may trust the CEO, they pay closest attention to their peers and immediate manager for both information and advice.”

Next page:  Training helps, too