GreenBiz Group Inc. recently released their 2014 Sustainability & Employee Engagement Report, content generated from responses of more than 5,600 members of the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel (executives and thought leaders in the area of corporate environmental strategy and performance). GreenBiz’s report “examines aspects of corporate environmental and sustainability education initiatives at companies at varying stages of program development and provides a quantitative understanding of the evolution of employee engagement” and notes that while sustainability professionals commonly think of challenges in terms of the physical or fiscal impact of their efforts, the most problematic challenge for this area today may actually be its use of language. Take the term “employee engagement” as an example. While sustainability professionals frequently use this term to describe their attempts to motivate a company’s employees to participate in furthering the sustainability or CSR program, it’s likely that HR executives already have a definition for the term and a way to measure it. HR commonly defines engagement as an employee’s willingness to apply discretionary effort toward meeting the company’s goals and to do more than merely meet job requirements/customer needs and measures this via an index approach using employee answers to survey questions. For example “are you proud to work at this company?” or “do you feel this is a great place to work?”
If HR and Sustainability teams have different definitions of terms like employee engagement, it can cause disconnect and communication barriers. GreenBiz uses the example of a CSR professional who ran into resistance when he met with HR to talk about how to improve employee engagement efforts at his organization. When he changed the language of the conversation however, and asked to discuss how they could increase the participation numbers in the company’s sustainability programs, he was meet with much more enthusiasm. GreenBiz points out that another potential language gap occurs when Sustainability and HR professionals discuss how to achieve greater participation from employees in furthering the sustainability mission. While 73 percent of respondents indicated that their company is educating employees across the organization about its corporate sustainability goals, in a recent study by The Conference Board, only 5 percent of the S&P 500 have instituted employee CSR training. This highlights the differences in association and potential confusion that can occur between the terms “training” and “education,” where training is generally more skills based and education often refers to broader and more general learning activities.
Understanding the kinds of language used in CSR and HR programs, and how to frame such language, can be a vital tool in breaking down communication barriers within an organization. With this in mind, let’s look more closely at what GreenBiz’s report uncovered, starting with the basic definition of “sustainability” initiatives. Over the last six years the term “sustainability” has become the standard for describing such initiatives. 51% of respondents report identifying with this term, up from 49 percent in 2011 and 34 percent in 2008. While this term is increasing, two terms have lost value in describing sustainability initiatives, “environmental, health and safety” and “greening” (see chart above). Another sustainability trend for 2014 is the convergence of social and environmental issues. When GreenBiz looked at the extent to which environmental and social issues are linked today vs. five years ago, they noted an increase across all companies regardless of size. The largest increase in the correlation was at large companies, from 87% to 94%. When it comes to educating employees about their corporate sustainability goals, almost all companies participate. 73% of respondents at small companies indicated their organizations are providing this education, as did 80% of respondents at large companies. Interestingly, which department champions sustainability education efforts most seems to be dependent on the size of the company (see graphic below).
When it comes to the topics on which departments focus for employee sustainability education programs, the top 5 have remained steady over the last six years and are: “general information about sustainability initiatives,” “the company’s sustainability successes and accomplishments,” “Actions at work to conserve or protect resources,” “environmental footprint of the company,” and “volunteer programs.” For 2014, the top three motivators for employee participation in corporate sustainability activities were: “concern for the environment and society,” “evident CEO support or mandate,” and “sustainability goals included in performance evaluation.” GreenBiz’s report also cites internal hurdles to sustainability education, which include executive commitment, education and communication, budget/resources/competing priorities, and time.
This data around participation by employees in corporate CSR or Sustainability programs, links nicely to last week’s post about Millennials’ participation in “cause work.” Coming at this topic from both directions – desire on the part of Millennials to participate and corporate CSR/Sustainability professionals’ desire for higher participation levels – creates significant opportunity for everyone. Building trust levels , creating opportunities for growing camaraderie and making strides in being good stewards of the Earth, the economy and our communities in one fell swoop could be a monumental win/win for all of us.