Why engaging employees on sustainability really isn't about money

Why engaging employees on sustainability really isn't about money

Employee engagement
Is financial compensation the best way to engage employees with sustainability?

How do you motivate employees? More specifically, how do you engage employees in sustainability initiatives —  which are often not tied directly to paychecks or profit margins, but rather seek to combat more daunting societal challenges, such as climate change, fossil fuel dependency and water shortages?

According to a recent report by Ceres, 40 percent of companies surveyed attempted to engage employees specifically on sustainability issues last year. Yet, of those 613 companies, Ceres classified only 6 percent as Tier 1 companies, or the companies setting the pace on employee engagement.

“Engaging employees in a corporate sustainability mission is essential for success, but employees are often an under-utilized resource in a company’s development and implementation of sustainability programs and strategies,” the report explained.

One bright spot in Ceres' findings is that the number of companies looking to engage employees on sustainability issues is increasing — up from 30 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2014.

One factor that may be driving increased engagement efforts: Sustainability is also seen by some as a harbinger of deeper engagement patterns.

“Employees who engage in the company’s sustainability and CSR initiatives have statistically significant increases in their overall engagement rate,” said Susan Hunt Stevens, founder of WeSpire, a technology company that focuses on employee engagement with sustainability.  

By way of context, only 31.7 percent of U.S. employees reported that they were engaged with their jobs in a March Gallup poll.

“Overall engagement rates are really low in companies in general," Hunt Stevens said. "If sustainability and CSR initiatives are a way to improve engagement, it becomes an organizational initiative to improve the company.”

Beyond keeping current employees engaged and happy, sustainability also can be a mechanism for recruiting.

Sweetening the deal

Although the research volumes on what makes employees tick are vast, one particularly pervasive behavioral psychology debate surrounds whether money really is the be-all and end-all when it comes to motivation.

A Gallup Poll in 2011, based on random phone interviews with 2,341 employed adults in the U.S., documented no correlation between income level and job satisfaction.

Further evidence is documented in a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior (PDF), which analyzed 120 years of research from 92 studies, and reported only a 2 percent overlap amongst pay performance and job satisfaction.

“I don’t think financial incentives are proven to be particularly effective in engaging employee,” said Hunt Stevens. “I think one of the things we really work on is the power of intrinsic motivation and particular recognition of accomplishments.”

Rather, the concept of purpose-driven work is increasingly correlated with professional fulfillment — which could be a good thing for corporate social responsibility departments.

“There’s a really growing importance by the workforce of the future to have jobs that have purpose and meaning,” said Hunt Stevens. “And they expect their employers to have sustainability programs, and they expect their company to make the world a better place.”  

Generational patterns are another factor to consider, as evident with the persistent fascination with hierarchy- and monotony-eschewing young professionals.

According to a Harvard Business Review article on employee engagement, millennials are "the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

Putting volunteering to work

As the road to finding maximum employee engagement offers no clear path, companies have integrated a number of programs to get employees to care.

For instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) — the second largest professional services provider in the world — intertwines employee engagement and sustainability largely through youth education on issues such as climate change and financial literacy.

At PwC, all sustainability initiatives are voluntary for employees and is something which the company hopes to build into its corporate culture, explained Director of Corporate Responsibility Jeff Senne.

The company also has an ambitious goal of garnering 100 percent of employees to be engaged in one of PwC’s sustainability programs. Currently, Senne said the company is at 90 percent.

He discovered five years ago that the best way to get maximum value out of employees and the benefactor was through skilled volunteering and education.

“We found that the unskilled volunteering wasn’t driving benefits back to the individual, or back to the firm, in the way that we hoped we'd see," said Senne. "So we really shifted our strategy to more skilled-based volunteering."

He adds that education also provides a way for employees to hone their skills in public speaking and teaching abilities in order to be better prepared in front of clients.   

“It’s also great for staff who really want to been seen as experts," said Senne. "They want to be known as an expert on something and be able to leverage their expertise and volunteering allows them to do that."

Courting competition

The multinational French industrial company Legrand, which has about 30,000 employees worldwide, used competition as a metric for sustainability engagement.

Legrand, which offers products and services in electrical systems and information systems, engaged employees with sustainability through an energy savings marathon in October that lasted 26.2 days across 18 sites.

The company’s North American Vice President of Energy Efficiency and Sustainability, Susan Rochford, explained that October’s energy marathon, which amounted to 15.4 percent reduction of electrical usage equating to 558,549 kWh saved, was an expansion of a previous energy savings event the company had in 2012.

In 2012, the North American branch held a "Power Down day" asking employees to reduce electricity in a 24-hour time frame. That resulted in a 24 percent reduction in energy intensity within the company.

During the marathon. the company held weekly competitions to further incentivize participation. At the end of the competition, Legrand recognized the winning site through a pizza party, contribution to a charity of its choice and a specialized trophy.

"I knew even after we did it a one-off is not going to change behavior,” said Rochford. “So I challenged my team last spring saying, ‘Look, we really need to take this up another notch and think about how … we can really sustain behavior. '"