You're talking to employees about sustainability wrong

Much has been written about the benefits of engaging employees on corporate social responsibility or sustainability efforts. Take GlobeScan board member Kellie McElhaney’s assertion in her book, “Just Good Business”: “Study after study shows that CSR is significantly linked to employees’ satisfaction. Employees tend to feel good about coming to work and earning a paycheck, as well as about contributing to some sort of social or environmental issue.”

GlobeScan’s research has indicated that for many employees their company is engaging them, at least on a basic level, by telling them about the company’s CSR commitments. But that finding, along with a number of others, is starting to show some downward tendencies.

Take, for example, the trend seen in the latest GlobeScan Radar survey (below).

While globally, most employees (81 percent) agree that the more socially responsible their company becomes, the more motivated and loyal they are as an employee, the slope illustrated in the chart for the proportion who strongly agree is a concern. Surely one should expect the opposite trend if companies are getting better at engaging their employees in their sustainability efforts.

So why the decrease?

In 2012 we asked employees of large companies whether their companies were doing a good job at informing them about CSR commitments. Globally, most employees at least “somewhat” agreed with this (74 percent).

But this is only part of the story. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed that “there is a gap between what my company says about social and environmental responsibility and how we actually behave,” a majority (58 percent) of corporate employees agreed that there is in fact a gap (see chart below). 

Again, if companies are engaging employees more deeply in their CSR and sustainability efforts, shouldn’t we expect the opposite?

Research that GlobeScan has conducted for numerous individual clients indicates that in order to maximize the return on investment for corporate responsibility efforts from employees, it is not enough to simply communicate to them what the company’s commitments are. The most loyal, satisfied and engaged employees have a clear understanding of the vision behind a company’s CSR strategy, they can easily explain this vision to their friends (and we assume believe in what they are saying), and also clearly know what their role as an individual employee is within the overall strategy. Yet trends in GlobeScan’s research suggest that, collectively, we are not engaging employees in this way.

Moreover, employee expectations are not only to be engaged with their company’s sustainability strategy, but also to be educated by their company to be more sustainable in their own lives. In 2012, more than eight out of 10 (83 percent) of employees of large companies indicated they would appreciate this.

This is at a time when public, private and non-profit sectors are facing the challenge of educating and persuading constituents, consumers and the general public to be more sustainable in their behavior to create demand-side traction for change. Yet within large companies there lies a captive audience asking to be educated on the very same thing. Sustainability leadership teams would be well advised to optimize their internal engagement strategies first.

Megaphone image by aslysun via Shutterstock