Two Reasons Why Your CSR Program Should Engage Employees

We’ve partnered with AHA!, a creative communications firm, to deliver this series on CR communications. Throughout the series, we’ll explore why your company’s CR communications plan should go beyond the CSR report and give you tools to keep communication flowing all year long. Read the rest here.
Group portrait of Western Electric employees outside building, circa 1920

By Melanie Colburn

The phrase “employees are our greatest asset” seems to be a common platitude at CSR conferences and in annual reports. But corporate responsibility communications are often outwardly focused — aimed at the media, investors, customers; the external community. There is much to be gained by focusing that lens inward, but when it comes to resource allocation, employee communications and engagement is often low on the list. Here are two good reasons why your CR communications should aim to educate, inspire, and engage employees.

Cost Savings
The Corporate Leadership Council reports that companies that enjoy high engagement rates have 87 percent lower staff turnover rates and twenty percent better performance. Need another? A survey by Ipsos MORI found that seventy-five percent of employees with a favorable impression of their company’s CSR efforts plan to stay two years, compared to fifty percent for those with an unfavorable opinion.

In the technology space, median recruitment costs were over $4,000 in 2011, and can range much higher for business services and other industries. Multiply by several thousand employees worldwide and investment in employee engagement begins to look like a bargain. Sustainability-engaged employees are more satisfied two-to-one, according to a nationwide study by Rutgers University.

Employee Ambassadors
Customer relationships are often lorded over, cultivated and prized. But today, many customers are seeping through the seams — connecting with your company through mobile devices, social media and the web. Interconnection is powerful but not easy to control. Business models must respond to this by meeting the customer where they are, not where one might want them to be.

Embed CSR into the brand from the inside out and there’s a bottom line perk. Employees that viewed their employer as environmentally responsible were fifty percent more likely to recommend their company, according to a study by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Communicate how your company supports an employee’s personal values and they’re more willing to carry your brand beyond the offices walls.

New Territory, Your Own Backyard
So if we recognize that employee engagement around corporate responsibility is valuable, why are so many companies stopping the presses at the sustainability report? Resources may be scarce, but it’s more than that. Media clippings can be counted, investor ratings provide a rank, and dollars are a customer’s ballot. But what do employees have to offer in terms of measurable results? Quantifiable goals can be deceptively comforting, making it easy to bias against or simply ignore areas in which it is challenging to show quarterly wins. Strategists might call those blind spots.

Even companies making great strides in social and environmental sustainability are struggling with this new territory — in other words, their “own backyard.” A recent roundtable hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund gathered sustainability professionals representing several leading companies across various industries, each with strong corporate responsibility commitments. The focus of the EDF event was to move thinking “beyond green teams” and toward embedding sustainability into people’s roles across the organization.

It is a bold vision. In many ways it embodies an ideal state of sustainability, one where triple bottom line values are so thoroughly adopted it is simply a given. Though this vision might appeal to you, stop for a second and consider how far your organization is from that idyllic.

Even leading companies at the forefront of many CSR efforts, like those present at the EDF roundtable, sometimes feel like novices in this area. There are no roadmaps and so few best in class case studies that it is premature to codify best practices. But they realize they can’t stop there. Employees and culture are just too important to the long-term enterprise of embedding sustainability throughout a company.

As practiced storytellers, CSR communicators have a special role to play in organizations at the ground stages of developing employee engagement around sustainability. Good communication is the core of engagement. Raters and rankers may only want the raw data, but employees need vivid and compelling episodes that provoke deeper reflection, response, and engagement.

If you’re not communicating your corporate responsibility in an authentic and compelling fashion to your internal audience, you are overlooking your “greatest asset” (they call it a truism for a reason). The most robust triple bottom line strategy lives beyond the walls of your presentation deck; it becomes the culture.

Melanie Colburn is part of the sustainability team at Autodesk, where she leads internal communications and employee engagement on sustainability. She has a degree with honors from the University of California at Berkeley and is pursuing an MBA in sustainable business at San Francisco State University. She has published in Mother Jones,, Reason magazine, and Hyphen magazine and contributed to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Vision 2050 Pathway.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author/ presenter and are not those of Autodesk, Inc., its officers, directors, subsidiaries, affiliates, business partners, or customers.

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7 responses

  1. Employee engagement is valuable because fully engaged employees are at least 300% more productive than if disengaged. Engagement is a choice made by the employee on the basis of how well management meets the five basic needs every person has: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy, and relatedness (purpose). CSR can meet the need for purpose but how about the other four?

    The elephant in the room for most companies is the traditional top-down command and control approach to managing people. Why? Because top-down by its nature tends to demotivate, demoralize, and disengage employees. As an executive, top-down proved to be toxic while its opposite, call it Autonomy and Support, worked like a charm for me, several times.

    My point is that CSR alone won’t create engagement.

  2. Employees are people. People want meaning in their lives. “Doing good” for society and the environment is something that people can derive meaning from. If they feel like their company can help them accomplish that, they’ll feel affinity to, and loyalty towards, the company.

    However, I think a broader issue in the corporate world is that people are often expected to check their personal identities and passions at the door. They then find it difficult to meaningfully connect with their company, their co-workers, and customers.

    Engagement around personally meaningful issues (like CSR) has to come from BOTH the employer and the employee – and sterilizing workplace culture (+ everyone’s limited bandwidth) can be a hard thing to overcome. A coordinated effort between CSR, HR, and passionate employees can make inroads!

  3. As this article points out, the benefits of actively promoting engagement are striking in terms of lower turnover, increased productivity, and building a better brand. Colburn’s phrase “employee ambassadors” hits the nail on the head–employees who truly believe in their company’s mission and values are far more likely to share that with the outside world. The company I work for has put together a great list of CSR resources like this one. Check it out here:

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