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BSR 2009: Top Strategies for Getting Employees Behind Sustainability

| Monday October 26th, 2009 | 5 Comments

employee-engagement2At BSR 2009 last week, a missing piece on the agenda was employee engagement. Yet, at the session on Internal Communications:  Making the Case for CSR’s Value, all of the speakers acknowledged the challenge of getting both employees and senior management behind sustainability.

The panel included Christopher Corpuel, Vice President, Sustainability at Hilton Hotels, Silvia Garrigo, Manager of Global Issues and Policy at Chevron and Kevin Moss, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at BT Americas Inc. The session, moderated by Eric Olson, Senior Vice President, at BSR, was formatted to allow for deeper dialogue and discussion–much appreciated by everyone!

Getting Senior Management Support

Garrigio from Chevron focused her comments on how to communicate internally to senior management.  Strategically communicating internally is more “of an art, than a science,” according to Garrigio.

She suggested take a step back, map the key stakeholders and identify what lens is important to them–legal, regulatory, shareholder, financial or external stakeholders. Find a way to link your initiative to their key business objectives, frame it in terms of management risks and make it relevant and valuable.

A few other suggestions to consider when trying to get buy-in and support for new initiatives:

  • Invest in allies and building relationships;
  • Be able to say that ideas are tried and tested with internal stakeholders;
  • Stress the shift in societal and stakeholder expectations.  Sustainability is not longer just nice to have;
  • Get employees in the field to share their stories;
  • Ask leaders to share more of their vision and challenges;
  • Create a community of practice; and
  • Develop an interactive web site to support efforts.

Getting Employees More Engaged at Work

Moss from BT Americas focused his comments on how to get employees engaged and suggested three key strategies to consider:

1.  Leadership to demonstrate a commitment: You need a policy and position in place, ideally supported by targets. Link the commitment to specific leaders and and get them involved.

2.  Release potential to build momentum:  Because sustainability issues are cross-functional in natural, Moss suggests empowering employees to breakout of their normal confines and give them permission to take action outside their normal boundaries.

He also recommends giving employees specific actions to take that link to a corporate initiative.  For example, after BT Americas installed a solar installation at their headquarters, they provided employees a discount with pre-vetted solar vendors to encourage them to take action at home.

And finally, he stressed, “allow the trivial things to happen.”  He used to think it was a waste to time to have staff focus on issues like eliminating paper cups and water bottles, but he now realizes that for many employees, these small actions are important because they are visible and tangible.

This is where green teams can play a key role in making the issue of sustainability come alive for employees.

John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, gave a key note right after the session, where he also stressed the importance of employee engagement.  Their organic green team has grown from 40 to over 2,000 employees, identifying over 600 ideas on how the company can be more sustainable.

3.  Harness momentum: The final, and most challenging step, is to help employees understand which material issues to pay attention to and to help them see the link between their specific contributions and the bigger picture.

Sometimes a single employee will think, “I can’t make a difference.” It is important to help them understand the implications in their day job–for example, how changing travel habits can make a big impact in a company’s carbon footprint.

Making the Case:  This is Good Business

Christopher from Hilton Hotels presented a very practical approach.  Identify measurable objectives; find the low hanging fruit; evaluate; and move forward. He suggested a variety of specific strategies, including link sustainability goals to performance evaluations and integrate it into existing communications channels:  the newsletter, on-line resources and trainings.

As for convincing skeptics, stress that customers are requesting information on environmental performance.  When possible, provide specific examples of customer requests. For example, Hilton is now seeing RFPs from large clients asking for information on their carbon footprint.

Take it out of feel good into core business. This is good business.

Help skeptics understand the context that sustainability programs can reduce costs, drive revenue and attract and retain great talent.

Other Best Practices

In the breakout session, a smaller group of us had a chance to meet with Moss to discuss best practices for employee engagement.  Some of the strategies mentioned included:

  • If you have a global program, be sure it is relevant to your target audience in different locations and cultures;
  • Ask employees for their ideas, then prioritize and narrow to top strategies; or, let employees vote on suggested ideas;
  • Use green teams to drive employee engagement.  Funding can come from a combination of facilities, CSR and HR;
  • Leverage internal communications to guide employees with resources and materials;
  • Identify a key senior person and have them drive employee engagement;
  • Ask people individually to get involved;
  • Create a council where employees come together to share resources and ideas;
  • Highlight CSR in the daily newsletter–highlight best practices, build momentum and create friendly competition;
  • Create more defined strategies–for example, BT America is focused on climate change, digital inclusion and disaster relief;
  • Give stores/facilities latitude to do what they want–for example, Best Buy gives stores only broad, general guidelines. Not as much consistency, but you harnesses what individuals care about;
  • Build sustainability metrics into performance objectives;
  • Select NGO partners to help;
  • Link volunteer hours and community engagement to sustainability priorities;
  • Recognize employees by making a monetary donation to employees charity of choice; and
  • Engage employees in their personal lives (i.e. Pfizer It Begins With Me and Wal-Mart PSP).

Challenges

Some of the key challenges to communicating sustainability and engaging employees identified included:

  • Strategic versus grassroots?:  How do you decide if it makes more sense to link employee activities to the corporate strategy or give them the flexibility to address the issues they care about at individual locations?
  • Metrics: What does success look like?  How do you measure the impact and provide feedback on end results?
  • Middle Management and Field Offices: How to get them engaged?
  • Volunteer or paid time:  Do employees impelment activities on their own time or is it part of their job?
  • Skeptics:  How do you respond to skeptics?

***

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges. She is a LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.

You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at Deborah@greenimpact.com.


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