Ten Keys for Educating and Engaging Employees

For all the talk these days about getting employee buy-in, building a shared mental model, creating an overarching vision, and all the other jargon of organizational development professionals, most companies seem to be grappling with a much more prosaic problem: Spreading a little knowledge about environmental issues around the company.

This is no mere trivial pursuit. Getting employees involved and invested in a company's environmental goals and objectives requires both a basic understanding of environmental issues as well as specific knowledge of the company's resource use and environmental impacts.

Such knowledge doesn't come naturally for most people. Surveys continually show that despite nearly a decade of media exposure, public service campaigns, and activist outreach, there remain huge information gaps about the environment -- indeed, about science in general.

Overcoming this state of affairs isn't easy, according to interviews with more than 20 companies we conducted in recent weeks. The fact is, the environmental managers we talked to -- from mostly large companies spanning a range of sectors -- seemed singularly frustrated with their lack of success in raising employee consciousness about the environment. And while there are successes, they seem relatively few and far between.

So, what works? Here are the 10 key strategies environmental managers employ:

1. Have Clear Goals

Let's start with the basics, simply because a lot of companies don't. In their efforts to educate employees about "the environment," many companies lose sight of what they're trying to accomplish -- specifically, how environmental learnings will further the company's strategic business goals. Consider your own organization's current mission: to reduce costs, get closer to the customer, grow market share, expand into new markets, create new business opportunities, and so on. Each of these can create opportunities to turn environmental principles into real-life business lessons. "It is very important to have specific problems in mind" when educating employees, says Rick Renner, environmental communications manager at 3M.

Another key to goal-setting is getting a snapshot of the status quo: How much do employees already know? (And how much do they care?) Your research may uncover pervasive myths -- for example, that solid waste is your company's number-one environmental challenge, when that may be far from the case. Such insight can be critical in determining how much and what types of lessons you need to impart.

2. Honor Differences

Another basic is to appreciate that not everyone learns in the same way. Some people like to learn out loud by discussing things with colleagues. Others like to learn alone, reading from books or watching videos. Some people like to know a subject's theoretical underpinnings while others prefer to stick with just what's relevant to their jobs. Some people need learning to be fun and entertaining while others want just the facts, ma'am.

Often, these differences can be accommodated through a mix of media and activities: newsletters, e-mails, one-on-one sessions, group discussions, posters, comic books, CD-ROMs, lecture series, and so forth.

Work styles are important, too, often requiring a diversity of communication approaches. "If I'm talking to people in set construction, memos and e-mails aren't going to do a thing," says Shelley Billik, director of recycling and environmental initiatives at Warner Bros. Studios. "I have to walk down to the stage and literally put my hard hat on and get in there and talk to them." With others, she says, a memo will do just fine.

When Gap, Inc. wanted to advertise its Spare the Air ridesharing and mass transit program, the company used e-mail, an intranet site, the public-address system, and big easels set up next to exits in the lobby. "We've found that if you focus on one type of presentation, it's not going to hit enough people," says Jennifer Roberts, senior environmental affairs manager.

3. Recognize Winners

People love to win. It doesn't need to be vast sums of cash, though money definitely talks. Sometimes, it's enough to be recognized with a plaque, a newsletter article, or a simple thank-you.

Xerox Corp.'s Earth Award program garners participation from scores of employee teams around the world, each of which submits innovative programs they created to help the environment. There is no prize, just a plaque or trophy. "The glory is mostly just the recognition of work well done," says Patricia Calkins, Xerox's manager of environmental market leadership.

On the other hand, there's IBM, whose environmental awards carry a $50,000 cash prize. Its high visibility has helped lure the involvement of those not normally involved with the environment. Says Wayne Balta, IBM's director, corporate environmental affairs: "In the eight years we've been running this program and of the several hundred employees who have won this award, only 1 percent or 2 percent are people with environmental jobs."

4. Encourage Teamwork

Several companies reported success by creating employee "green teams" as a means of sharing ideas, information, and inspiration. "We really need to provide some hands-on opportunities for [employees] to get involved," says Ben Packard, environmental affairs manager at Starbucks Coffee Co. "A mission statement is often intangible. People need to see specific examples of the mission statement in action and have a proactive opportunity to succeed in bringing our mission statement to life."

Starbucks has 14 Green Teams made up of regional store managers who come to Seattle twice a year. Their semiannual meetings are "unique opportunity for our individual store managers to get together to hear new information and determine implementation plans regarding new environmental initiatives," says Packard.

At Bank of America, green teams work to build environmental programs internally, says Candace Skarlatos, VP of environmental policy and programs. As a result, she says, environmental lessons are tailored to each sector of the bank as well as on a personal level about what individuals can do.

5. Get Top Management Involved

We're not talking about getting CEO buy-in, though that's important, too. This is about CEO involvement, along that of the whole top-management team. "Caring for the environment is something employees want to do, but they need to feel that it's okay to do that," says 3M's Renner. "So when they hear their CEO give a speech on the subject, it legitimizes it for them."

Stonyfield Farm has specific educational training targeted at senior managers. This way, not only are they knowledgeable and a resource for others, lower-level employees see they are involved and understand that environmental issues affect all levels of the company. "There needs to be a message from the very top that this is important or people aren't going to buy it," says Nancy Hirshberg, director of natural resources.

6. Make It Relevant

Lessons that don't apply to one's job will quickly be forgotten. But molding information to fit each individual's tasks can be equally daunting. Therein lie two approaches to reaching individual employees. On the one hand, BASF Corp. "provides employees with techniques to incorporate environmental guidelines into their jobs by doing specific training geared to individual jobs," says Steve Rice, leader of environmental opportunities.

Nike takes a different approach, providing employees with general environmental education that they can use as appropriate in their own jobs. "We are trying to devise a way that employees can learn about the basics, so that they can take it to their own sector, assess where they are currently, then develop a vision and set goals to reach that," explains Laila Kaiser, of Nike's Environmental Action Team. "But it's through their own education about basic issues that they can best identify how they can create the most change."

7. Make It Constant

Environmental education is of minimal value if it is relegated to a once-a-year effort every third week of April. Ideally, it can be continually reinforced throughout the year. Moreover, people come and go, people change jobs, and companies reorganize. Amid all this, environmental messages need to remain steadfast.

Cynthia Georgeson, director of corporate public affairs worldwide at SC Johnson, puts it more bluntly: The two most important things in environmental education are "focus, focus, focus, and consistency, consistency, consistency."

8. Think Locally

Nothing drives environmental issues home better than their impact on the community. Community activities provide an opportunity for employees to come together to learn -- and to make a difference.

In September, Nike inaugurated its new environment policy in a very public way. It held a huge celebratory event with 2,500 employees present, along with a bevy of environmental and sports stars. Following the festivities, 1,000 Nike employees went into the community for half a day to help clean up Portland. The value of their efforts was matched by a corporate contribution to a community group dedicated to cleaning up Portland.

9. Make It Fun...

Fun is a good way to inspire people who have little natural interest in the environment. Done well, you may actually trick people into learning something.

Contests and games can be effective. For example, Ben & Jerry's Homemade created an activity called "Get Reacquainted with the Recycling Room." The company rented a popcorn popper and put it alongside the collection bins. "People may just go down there to get food, but they learn something about recycling in the process," says Andrea Asch, who works on environmental issues.

Each October, Ben & Jerry's stages "Environment Awareness Week," whose activities includes a Trivial Pursuit-type game. Employees must answer questions based on clues placed around the office. The names of participants are put into a hat. People whose names are drawn win prizes.

Says Asch: "I've found that the key to success is food and prizes."

A few years ago, Esprit de Corp, the San Francisco-based apparel company, was struggling with how to get employees to participate in its recycling program. Despite enthusiasm from the youthful work force, the compliance rate was low.

In response, the company produced a video, part Monty Python, part "Candid Camera." In the dead of night, staffers rifled through employee trash cans to determine who was throwing away recyclables. A few days later, these same staffers asked several of the unsuspecting guilty to participate in a "special video project." They brought each onto an interview set and, cameras rolling, asked them to talk about the environment. The employees answered in earnest until the interviewer pulled the rug out from under them: "We've been going through your trash and here's what we found. . . ."

Realizing they had been set up and caught on camera, the employees' reactions ranged from playful embarrassment to anger and guilt. The completed video was shown on a 27-foot-high screen at a company meeting. Now, no one throws anything out.

10. ...But Not Too Fun

Such tactics notwithstanding, it's easy to go overboard, with the result being that style triumphs over substance. Patagonia learned that when it staged an elaborate "Eco-Jeopardy" game a few years ago. Winners won candy bars and the game was a hit.

Recalls one former Patagonia staffer: "People are still talking about the game, but it's doubtful if they remember anything from it."