What Do Employees Really Want?

Two Steps Forward

What Do Employees Really Want?

I spoke this past week to a group of senior marketing professionals from a major consumer products company. It was a half-day workshop to explore the question, "How good is 'good enough'?" That question has been at the heart of speeches and presentations I've been giving for the past couple of years, and is at the core of my forthcoming book, Strategies for the Green Economy (about which you'll be hearing much more in the coming weeks).

The question, for the uninitiated, is essentially this: Given that there's no standard for what it means to be a "green business," how can a company know that its environmental commitments, performance, and progress will be viewed as substantitive and authentic in the eyes of employees, customers, activists, the media, and others — and, in the process, insulate itself from charges of greenwashing, or worse?

I don't claim to have the answer to this question, but I offer a framework for thinking about it. And I've found that simply asking the question can lead to some pretty interesting conversations inside companies, as each individual assesses what he or she thinks is "good enough," then benchmarks that against those of colleagues, trading partners, and others.

What strikes me nearly every time, as it did at the company workshop I led last week, was how many employees have a ready answer — and how varied those answers are.

The wisdom of employees is another theme that's woven through the tapestry of my work for the past twenty years. In my 1993 book, The E-Factor, I devoted a subtantitive chapter to this. It began:

If you understand nothing else about the potential of the people in your organization to effect environmental change, know this: A growing number of them are recycling, insulating, and otherwise greening their personal lives, either because they want to or because they are being required to by state and local laws. And, with the possible exception of a recently converted nonsmoker, no one is more self-righteous than a recently converted environmentalist. They take pride in their deeds and the part they are playing in the future of their community, their nation, and their planet.

But then they go to work, where they see tremendous waste and inefficiency — in the front office, on the factory floor, in the supply room, and just about elsewhere else. The trash accumulated by a handful of coworkers each day dwarfs that modest pile of newspapers they put out on the curb at home for pickup each week. The pollution prevented by the energy-efficient light bulbs they installed around the house may seem obliterated by the harsh glare of the endless banks of fluorescent lights at work, burning long after most people have gone home, controllable only by an inaccessible computer in the basement. It doesn't take a degree in the behavioral sciences to recognize the frustration and cynicism that can result. And those bad feelings can affect performance, commitment, quality, and pride.

The flip side, of course, is that when companies commit to some of these same goals — when they give their employees permission and encouragement to think and act environmentally — their efforts are often enthusiastically embraced. In many companies, environmental initiatives actually begin with line employees, bubbling up through the ranks until top management, like any astute leader, signs on to the program.

Fifteen years later, that passage still rings true. And, in many regards, not much has changed. Companies — even environmental leaders — still largely fail to tap that mother lode of inspiration and insight that walks through their doors every day. In a recent survey conducted by Zogby International, 63 percent of employees said they were greener than their company. Another recent survey, by Fresh Marketing, found that "Most employees want more education and resources on corporate sustainability" and that only one in ten "feel completely prepared."

That's a lost opportunity. No one knows more about the waste and inefficiency inside a company than those in middle and lower rungs. These are the folks on the front lines who experience such things every day: the things that get purchased but not used; the things are tossed out that should be recycled; the "standard operating procedures" that result in seemingly small, but cumulatively large amounts of wasted energy, water, and materials. They know what comes into the loading dock and goes out through dumpsters, smokestacks, and drainpipes. In many cases, these individuals would be willing to spearhead changes — if they thought anyone cared, or if they knew that that sticking their necks out wouldn't backfire in some fashion, and might even win them praise. More often than not, these employees don't bother, playing it safe or simply assuming that whatever they do won't be valued, or will simply be a drop in the vast bucket of company wastefulness.

I challenge you to ask ten colleagues, superiors, or subordinates some version of this question: "What would you most like to see our company do to be more environmentally responsible?" I'll bet you a copy of my new book that at least half of them will have some ready answer. Whether or not it's a good answer isn't necessarily the point. The mere fact that they have an answer is significant. That suggests they've been thinking about this. Chances are, at least a few of their ideas wil be good ones.

I asked this question to the group of two dozen or so marketing professionals I met with last week. They work for a major multinational consumer products company that has a long record of leadership in greening its products, facilities, fleets, and more. But hardly anyone in the group knew about their company's environmental activites, and most were pleasantly surprised when they learned all that their company was doing. Most didn't consider themselves very knowledgeable about environmental issues, but when I asked what they'd most like their company to do, nearly everyone had a good answer: set a goal of becoming a paperless office; integrate environmental performance into everyone's job reviews; subsidize employee purchases of hybrid vehicles; dramatically reduce packaging used to transport their products to retailers; create a cross-functional green team to share experiences and best practices.

What struck me about these suggestions, aside from the fact that they were all reasonable ones, was that they were not aimed at hyping their company's green deeds to the world. These were all internally focused activities, things unlikely to end up as green claims on products or in ads, press releases, or marketing materials. (This was all the more remarkable given that these were all marketing folks.) In other words, it wasn't about creating a greener image. It was about creating a greener company.

This isn't a rare instance. I've seen this in company after company. When people believe that being environmentally responsible is part of their job, wherever they sit in the company, they'll often rise to the occasion.

One of my favorite stories about employee engagement came years ago from a major Midwest book and magazine printer that made great strives to empower its 9,000 employees to root out waste and inefficiency. The company boasted a long list of accomplishments, for example, reducing the number of barrels of waste ink (which had to be collected in 55-gallon drums and shipped off to a hazardous waste disposal site) from 17 drums a month to just one — a 96 percent reduction, representing a significant financial savings.

During a tour of the company, impressed by such feats, I asked the environmental manager, "How many employees do you have working on environmental issues?"

Without missing a beat, he repled, "Nine thousand." That is, it was part of everyone's job.

Now, that's the spirit.