Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Millennials and the State of Employee Engagement


Employee engagement has been a hot topic in the sustainability space this year -- and for good reason. Attracting, engaging and retaining top talent has caught up to — if not surpassed — motives like cost savings as the driving factor influencing companies to embrace sustainability goals.

To put it simply: More and more employees are asking companies about their sustainability programs, and, even in a sluggish economy, some may be hesitant to work for a company that hasn't identified sustainability as a priority.

While the pressure is coming from all angles, research shows the younger generation is leading the charge: A recent PwC study found that more than half of recent college graduates are seeking a company that has corporate social responsibility (CSR) values that align with their own, and 56 percent would consider leaving a company that didn’t have the values they expected.

Building on this research, cloud-based engagement platform WeSpire (formerly known as Practically Green) recently released the results of a five-year research study that shows the influence millennials have in organizations stepping up their employee engagement action.

The findings are intriguing: In response to employee demand, particularly from millennials, a growing number of employers are adopting an official engagement policy on sustainability. This upward trend was especially pronounced from 2011 to 2014, where the prevalence of an official employee sustainability engagement policy nearly doubled: from 17 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2014.

"People are realizing that these are not 'nice-to-have' programs," Susan Hunt Stevens, founder and CEO of WeSpire, told Triple Pundit. "They drive the bottom line and the top line of business."

Despite this significant uptick, more than 50 percent of employees would like to see their employer’s stance change on employee sustainability efforts, with millennials leading all age groups. It's worth noting that this figure is down from a high of 67 percent in 2011, but even in 2014, 46 percent of respondents reported that their employer does not have an official policy at all.

The business-as-usual response may be something to the tune of: So what? But engaging employees is proving to be more and more crucial to business success: In a 2012 report that compiled 263 research studies across 192 companies, Gallup found that companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22 percent higher profitability, 10 percent higher customer ratings, 28 percent less theft and 48 percent fewer safety incidents. In a recent blog post on Triple Pundit, Gwen Migita, VP of sustainability and community affairs for Caesars Entertainment, drew a direct link between customer loyalty and employee engagement in sustainability programs.

Sustainability and the state of employee engagement

That's great and all, but the fact remains that most employees are not engaged in their work. According to Gallup surveys, 52 percent of employees were "not engaged" in 2012. (Sounds pretty similar to those WeSpire sustainability numbers, doesn't it?).

To make matters worse, a shocking 18 percent of employees are "actively disengaged" from their work. As Hunt Stevens puts it, "Sustainability engagement programs are very effective in engaging employees." So, companies looking to reap the benefits of an engaged workforce may want to look more closely at sustainability engagement programs before shrugging them off.

In many cases, such programs can not only inspire engagement, but also drive behavior change in employees outside the workplace -- making an even bigger difference for the planet and putting a human face on a company's sustainability initiatives outside of its four walls.

One example Hunt Stevens provided is the WeSpire Drought Busters project, created in response to the ongoing drought in the Southwest. Through the project, offices are challenged to reduce water use by 10 percent, and employees are encouraged to do the same at home. WeSpire partner companies in California, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon are already participating in the project, which has also garnered interest from organizations in Australia and Israel, Hunt Stevens said. What seems like a simple idea saved more than 5 million gallons of water in only eight weeks.

"This is the perfect example of using the workplace as a way to inspire behavior change around a certain topic," Hunt Stevens told Triple Pundit. "Employees realize that if they're doing this at work, they can also save money and resources by doing the same at home." Employees engaged in such programs at home and at work are also more likely to tell their friends what they're up to, Hunt Stevens noted -- an attractive fringe benefit for companies from a marketing perspective.

Millennials, HR and making your program a success

The link between the Human Resource (HR) function and sustainability continues to expand, but WeSpire's findings show there's still plenty of work to be done. While the percentage of employees who view HR as the main sustainability advocate doubled from 2011 to 2014 (from 5 percent to 10 percent), that still leaves 90 percent of HR departments that aren't viewed as a driver of sustainability action.

This represents an enormous potential for growth, Hunt Stevens said, and HR departments may learn a great deal by observing the preferences of the younger generation -- especially if a company hopes to use its sustainability commitments to attract and retain top talent. One of the more intriguing findings from WeSpire's "State of Employee Engagement" study is how interested millennials are in the sustainability activities of not just their company, but also their colleagues.

"Employees see sustainability as social," the report's authors write. In fact, 65 percent of respondents said they want to learn more about what their co-workers are doing. This finding persists throughout nearly all age groups -- from millennials to Baby Boomers -- but is much stronger in the millennial generation, as high as 75 percent.

Hunt Stevens draws an interesting parallel between these numbers and millennials' comfort with social media. What comes along with social media engagement, she said, is the sentiment that: "I can learn from my peers just as much as I can learn from experts."

To that end, greater transparency and communication surrounding sustainability programs can drive greater participation and engagement -- ensuring that the resources a company spends on establishing these programs don't go to waste. Things like Green Teams, friendly competitions, awards and bonuses have proven especially successful, Hunt Stevens said, and are gaining in popularity as a result.

"Work is a very powerful social network," she told us. "People are inherently influenced by social norms ... and transparency can be a big motivator."

The bottom line

We can go on about surveys and statistics until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is that the ability to attract and retain top talent is -- and always has been -- crucial to long-term success.If more up-and-comers are asking about sustainability, that's a pretty big motivator for companies to take it seriously. Those that engage employees now will reap environmental, social and financial benefits for years to come.

"The biggest thing the survey helps to enforce is: A company that thrives into the future is a company that recognizes sustainability and CSR as a core part of the business," Hunt Stevens concluded. "Getting sustainability into a company's DNA and part of its core operating strategy ... the data is showing that's critical."

Images courtesy of WeSpire

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is a senior editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Earth911 and the Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia.

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni

More stories from Investment & Markets