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Mary Mazzoni headshot

The Future of Employee Engagement Isn't What You Think

By Mary Mazzoni
employee engagement Kimberly-Clark

Data indicates that the future of employee engagement centers around purpose. For Kimberly-Clark, that means recognizing  “exceptional leadership” in moving toward the company’s sustainability and social impact goals, such as this solar installation at its manufacturing plant in Tuas, Singapore—one of the largest in the country.

Last year, roughly 34 percent of U.S. workers felt engaged and committed to their jobs, according to Gallup polling. While that number sounds pretty dismal, it’s actually the highest level Gallup has ever measured and a six-point improvement over 2008, equating to approximately 8 million more people who are engaged at work. Still, with employee engagement being such a central focus for America’s largest companies, it’s hard to avoid the question: Why are so few workers enthusiastic about their jobs?

Over the past decade, leading companies have assembled almost comical lists of perks as they compete for top talent, but research indicates the next phase in employee engagement won’t have anything to do with gym memberships, ping-pong tables or espresso in the breakroom.

The human resources consulting firm Mercer recently surveyed 7,600 business executives, HR leaders and employees from around the world to find out what helps them thrive at work. The results? Seventy-five percent of those who feel personally and professionally fulfilled say they work for a company with a strong sense of purpose, in which they’re given opportunities to learn and experiment in support of their employer’s broader goals.

As global agendas like the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals demand more from business, there’s certainly no shortage of high-level objectives for employees to hang their hats on. Yet the majority of companies are out of sync: Only 13 percent differentiate their employee value propositions with a purpose-driven mission, according to Mercer’s study. And most still measure purpose in things like volunteer hours, product donations and philanthropy— leaving no clear path for employees to contribute to larger impact goals in a meaningful way.

Still, a select few companies are looking to engage employees directly in their sustainability and social impact work—and they’re reaping the benefits in the form of higher employee satisfaction, lower turnover and measurable progress toward their sustainability goals.

For example, Kimberly-Clark recently surpassed its 2022 energy and climate goals four years early—reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 27 percent compared to a 2005 baseline and outperforming its initial goal of a 20 percent cut in GHGs. But this global personal care company couldn’t accomplish such a feat from its headquarters in Irving, Texas. This effort was an all-hands-on-deck operation that enlisted plant managers, pulp and paper mill operators, and teams from more than 60 countries, said Lisa Morden, vice president of safety and sustainability.

“Our business is based on a local empowerment model,” Morden told us. “Global teams like mine support the larger strategies, but … the solutions to meet the goals need to make sense for the local mills. That means having champions for our sustainability programs at the local level is critical.”

Over the past three years, the company behind well-known brands like Huggies, Kleenex and Scott has executed more than 400 energy conservation projects at sites around the world. And a virtual power purchase agreement with two wind farms offset 99 percent of the power needs for its professional manufacturing sites in the U.S.

In response to those early successes, Kimberly-Clark doubled its GHG target to a 40 percent reduction by 2022. “[Surpassing our goal] was only possible because our local mill leaders worked closely with our global and regional teams and set their own energy reduction targets,” Morden told us. “Our Singapore team, for example, installed the largest solar panel roof in the country this year. Actions like that are the reason we could confidently double our goal.”

Kimberly-Clark recognizes teams who contribute to these long-term objectives with its annual Crystal Tree Awards. Along with the manufacturing team in Tuas, Singapore—which replaced 15 percent of its conventional energy use with solar power—this year’s winners include a mill team in Barbosa, Colombia, whose virgin pulp reduction program is set to divert 600 tons of waste from landfills annually. Additionally, the company’s Kotex team in North America created the Alliance for Period Supplies to make sanitary products more accessible to low-income women, while a team in India forged a partnership to collect soft plastic packaging.

To be nominated, every project must show a connection to one of the company’s 2022 goals and to direct business results, highlighting how it either impacted operations or consumer experience, Morden said. Employees from across the company vote on which projects inspired them most.

Generally speaking, this type of movement to break sustainability from its silo and tie it to every employee’s work is the exception, not the norm. But Kimberly-Clark finds itself in good company among other early movers in this area.

IBM, for example, engages all of its business units in environmental goal-setting to help every employee understand its long-term objectives. British retailer Marks & Spencer designates “sustainability champions” at all of its nearly 1,400 stores to ensure each location contributes to companywide targets. And the German consumer goods company Henkel encourages its 53,000 employees to champion sustainability, as over 90 percent of them have received training through its Sustainability Ambassador program since 2012.

For Kimberly-Clark, engaging employees directly in sustainability not only helps the company make progress on its goals, but also creates a more fulfilling work experience for teams around the world.

“While our community giving programs—product donations, scholarships and nonprofit partnerships—are impactful to the communities where we live and work, giving the mill teams ownership to meet our collective goals creates an entirely different type of engagement and career satisfaction,” Morden concluded. “That’s the power of taking your global sustainability goals and making it personal to your people.”

Previously published in the Autumn 2019 edition of CR Magazine.

Image courtesy of Kimberly-Clark

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni