Building an Organizational Culture of Sustainability: Employee Engagement

These days, we hear more and more that a company’s stance on social and environmental issues plays a significant role in choice of employer. A recent survey found that over 50% of American workers report being inclined to work for “green” companies.  Women and Generation Y in particular want their company’s mission to go beyond profitability, encompassing benefits to the wider community, on social, environmental and economic dimensions (with men and Boomers not that far behind). They are eager to work with companies in which they feel they can make a difference.

These ‘value driven’ individuals are like gold.  Get them to work for your organization and fully engage them in work that feels meaningful – with outcomes they can influence and for which they are recognized – and they will go above and beyond. They will have pride in being associated with the organization, recommending it to others as a great place to work, which in turn will contribute to an improved reputation with customers. HR departments have not missed this trend, and now recognize that sustainability is a significant tool to recruit, retain, inspire and motivate the workforce.

But how do you make sure that you fully engage your employees? How do you enroll not only those who are already committed to sustainability, but also those who are sitting on the fence – or even cynical?

First, you need to find out where your employees stand.  A written survey or focus group can be used to gauge how employees view your company’s commitment to sustainability, as well as their own personal thoughts on environmental and social issues. You can gather their ideas on what steps to take to advance sustainability efforts, and then find out how employees would personally like to be involved.  This information will help you build your strategy for employee engagement.

When people talk about employee engagement for sustainability, they typically think of “green teams”.  However, there is far more to engagement than that. Traditional green teams often have little or no involvement in the company’s official sustainability efforts. They are typically composed of environmentally-minded individuals, who are driven to green their lives at home and at work. While many green teams have produced fantastic results, full employee engagement requires a much broader strategy.

Putting in Place the Foundation

An employee engagement program will not go far without first establishing the management infrastructure required to support sustainability.  This means integrating sustainability into the overall business strategy, with clear vision, goals and metrics.  It means having strong executive sponsorship and a collaborative governance structure for decision making and resource allocation.  It requires a rewards and recognition program to support and reinforce sustainability behaviors. You will also need to put in place a project management structure to execute your sustainability strategy, and allow your initiatives to scale throughout the business. With such an infrastructure in place, you will be able to develop a strategy that fully engages employees, while fully realizing the benefits of their contributions.


Cornerstones of an Employee Engagement Strategy


With the foundation built, the next step is to create the cornerstones of your engagement strategy. On a 1-10 scale, how would you rate your organization?  Where are your biggest gaps?

Providing Direction

  • Articulate the vision for sustainability, why it is important, and what people need to do to support it.
  • Communicate performance expectations and how progress will be measured.

Building Competencies

  • Clarify roles and competencies required for managing/participating in sustainability initiatives.
  • Provide education and training on sustainability as it relates to technical and business skills, including collaboration, innovation and project management.


Creating Opportunities

  • Engage employees in sustainability planning and implementation, from business case development to reporting results and continuous improvement.
  • Establish informal cross functional teams to provide education and help brainstorm issues/solutions.
  • Establish a Continuous Improvement program to review processes, environmental issues and generate/prioritize new sustainability initiatives.
  • Establish a Community of Practice/Center of Excellence in Sustainability to share and develop best practices.
  • Provide necessary resources to support engagement, e.g., education and training budget, time, information, backfilling.


  • Inspire/energize employees to commit to the strategy; show its benefits and the importance of their contributions.
  • Solicit and address questions and concerns.
  • Reward behaviors needed to support sustainability.
  • Celebrate accomplishments.

The Bottom Line

Without fully engaging employees in your sustainability initiatives, you lose one of your most dynamic and powerful tools to build a culture of commitment, and potentially a competitive edge.


FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge Group brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation.

Anna Ewins is a FairRidge Group Affiliate, and founding partner of Ewins & Winby. They deliver comprehensive organizational readiness and commitment building solutions to clients who are implementing business transformation requiring strategic change. Anna’s clients have included Chevron, Blue Shield, HP, Sun and Stanford University. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (Organizational) from Saybrook Institute, and a B.Sc. in Life Sciences from Aberdeen University.

About FairRidge FairRidge Group is a team of management, strategy, and change experts focused on business transformation through the practical application of sustainability for operational improvement and strategic innovation. FairRidge brings a new framework for sustainability management that integrates strategy, operations, branding, measurement and organizational development to drive profitable business transformation. Because of our deep business experience, we address sustainability in a way that focuses on real business needs and drivers, not passing trends or fads. Our goal is to use this unique perspective to deliver our clients the best combination of business and sustainability expertise for their particular situation. Through the domain specialists in our Expert Network, FairRidge can easily tailor our team to fit client needs. Our sustainability services are available on both a project-specific and ongoing subscription basis. Learn More About Us Here

22 responses

  1. Call it the idealism of a recent college graduate, but the thought of spending over 50% of my weekly waking hours sitting in a cubicle devoting myself to something that I don’t care about is terrifying to me. I feel like I have all this pent-up energy in me right now, and if I start spending it on something I don’t care about then I’m afraid that energy will just steadily fizzle away. But the really scary part—and the sad part—is that doing something you don’t give a damn about (because the bottom line is those bills need to get paid) is actually the fate of the majority of the world.

    Me wanting—expecting, even—to have a career about which I’m passionate may be a sign of my youth, but it’s also a sign of my privilege. I—and I imagine many of 3p readers—are part of a very, very tiny percentage of the world that is privileged enough to be able to CHOOSE a career.
    Yet even of that tiny percentage, obligations and circumstances prevent many from ever ending up in careers about which they are truly passionate.

    So I can’t express how grateful I am right now to be working for a company that allows me to “fully engage in work that feels meaningful.” I’m lucky. And if more companies take on the advice of this post, then perhaps a greater percentage of people will be given the opportunity to feel as lucky as I do.

  2. Great article. Sustainability and green initiatives inspire because they serve the greater common good. That is why values-driven companies consistently out-perform companies who pursue profit at the expense of people, planet and purpose. Readers might like to see:
    for a model for building and maintaining a high employee engagement culture.
    Best Regards,

  3. In some ways, it startles me that people spend so much time developing full-on engagement strategies when it seems like most employees want the same basic things…Things that don’t necessarily require all of that precision in planning. I think that engagement is often cultural and all of the planning overlays you can come up with can’t fundamentally alter a culture.

  4. It's good to see this sort of discussion underway once again. As you likely know, we went through similar activities in the early 1990s in response to the Earth Summit, the UNEP and ICC Sustainable Development Initiatives, the impending EU Directives and Responsible Care Management Practices. The successful pursuit of sustainable development, as with any corporate process or program is predicated on a corporate culture that nourishes employee-focused initiatives. The guiding principle involves finding those aspects of the existing corporate culture that support sustainable development objectives. Then use the current vernacular to integrate the new processes into standard operating procedures. Within each company there are likely to be different cultures or perspectives on the corporate culture that prevail. Hence the need for a cross-functional team with each member supplying some specific cultural expertise. When the sustainability (green or eco) team understands and uses the integrative approach to pursuing new models and new practices, then they have a real chance for success. Of course, it also helps to have a senior level champion. The team can help the champion by providing him or her with the language needed to encourage people throughout the organization and give them a vision for success. It can be a challenging, fun, organic process.

  5. it is really very good to know Over 50% American worker are aware to environment with showing interest in green companies. Every company success is completely depend on employee performance and if employee happy than company should progress. these boths are the basic and easy concept. Employer need to give a friendly and family environment with that you can easily improve employees perfomance. You also described very well about that topic. Thanks

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