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Sustainability leaders, note: There's no more room for silence

More than half of U.S. employees want their companies actively address societal and environmental issues. Here's how corporate leaders can respond.

In early June, several CEOs declared their disagreement with President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement and announced their departure from his Strategic and Policy Forum. These CEOs represent companies who have committed to address climate change and set specific sustainability targets. 

This turn of events represents, perhaps for the first time in recent history, a significant vocalization of political views by major Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs — and in turn, a recognition that transformation is coming to the modern workforce. Issues that used to be considered taboo in the American workforce are now common fodder for watercooler conversations.

Last month, Povaddo, an opinion research and issues management consultancy, reported that 57 percent of employees polled in a survey (PDF) of the corporate America workforce say they want their companies to play a more active role in addressing societal and environmental issues. However, only 35 percent said they felt their CEO has his or her finger on the pulse of employees’ attitudes toward these concerns.

Povaddo’s survey, which polled a random selection of nearly 1,300 U.S. employees of Fortune 1000 companies, emphasizes that today’s American workforce wants to work for companies that understand and appreciate their diversity and outlook on pivotal social issues. Top of mind for the surveyed professionals, of the 23 choices presented, include:

  • Equal opportunity in the workplace.
  • Supporting veterans.
  • Data privacy.
  • Paid family leave.
  • Community development safety.
  • Clean air and water and open spaces.
  • Improving public education.
  • Renewable energy.
  • Poverty and hunger.
  • Race relations. 

"Over 60 percent of the societal issues we looked at received a clear majority support inside companies, regardless of political affiliation," said Tony Calandro, Povaddo’s senior vice president for social impact. 

The activist employee

Activist employees tend to skew younger, said Calandro, as well as women and more management — representing three demographic groups that have become increasingly vocal on issues such as climate change, diversity and parental leave, especially in the current political climate. In April, Joel Makower previewed the results of the survey ahead of its full release and posed a scintillating question: Is employee activism on sustainability nearing a tipping point?

Calandro believes so because 40 percent of respondents said that the actions a company takes on important societal issues affects their employment decisions. On a panel at Sustainable Brands 2017 moderated by Futerra’s Freya Williams, he added: 

Silence is no longer golden for CEOs — there will be a clear price to pay for inaction. If employees believe that their CEO and company are making no effort to address social issues, they are more likely to leave, reduce their level of engagement, and volunteer negative information about the company on social media. 

No room for silence from the C-suite

For CSR and sustainability leaders, these results should bring much-needed validation that their work is starting to cascade into the mainstream employee base and justify the investment towards more systemic and longer-term strategies that focus on measurable impact and transparency. As Calandro emphasized, the survey results are as much indicative of employees’ demand for authentic and transparent communication from the C-suite as it is about companies’ actual practices.

That is, taking a stand will serve you well.

There’s no room for silence any more — for sustainability leaders, creating change within corporate America has been for years as much about instilling a sense of purpose and responsibility through strategic actions as mentoring up to help CEOs communicate from the heart and the mind. Povaddo’s research underlines that this communication must evolve beyond business-related conversations to mirror and respond more closely to employees’ lives as caregivers, consumers and community members. 

This communication must evolve beyond business-related conversations to mirror and respond more closely to employees’ lives as caregivers, consumers and community members.

For instance, when asked how they would like their company to get more engaged, 84 percent of respondents chose "providing matching funds to nonprofit organizations that align with company’s social commitments," followed by "provide socially responsible funds to invest in through 401(k)s" and "provide new feedback channels to ensure employee attitudes are being heard by senior management," with both receiving 74 percent of the respondents’ votes.

Making a tangible impact

This indicates that employees are increasingly looking for ways to make tangible impact through multiple avenues. As a company, make sure your programs are not just about providing employees an opportunity to donate to their favorite causes. Make sure that you’re truly integrating their role as changemakers in every corner of the company’s operations, from ensuring a suite of socially responsible funds in pension plans to realistic parental leave policies and setting up proactive feedback channels for upper management to stay connected with rank and file.

Considering the results of the survey, every sustainability leader would be well served to take three action steps:

  1. Start thinking of employee engagement as "fulfillment." Identify new programs and policies that attract activist employees and partner closely with your human resources and recruitment teams to measure their success.
  2.  You’re the experts on these issues, so make sure you’re proactively serving as necessary sounding boards and advisers to your C suite so that they can take a stand confidently on issues such as climate change and diversity and inclusion.
  3. Stay close to your colleagues in government relations, operations, finance, procurement and sales. This gives you a clear opportunity to form strategic partnerships and tangibly advance them to embed real, internal change.

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