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Making It Personal: Engaging Employees for Sustainable Success

Many companies know the value of employee engagement, particularly around a long-term trend as significant to future business success as sustainability. But as they invest in and launch employee sustainability engagement efforts they often find these programs perform below expectations. Why?

The answer varies. Some employee engagement efforts simply have poorly defined objectives and targets. In other cases employees perceive these programs as ineffective because they generate guilt without solutions, or address small issues while ignoring more substantial challenges. In the worst examples, employees see these programs as designed only to improve the company image or squeeze more production out of workers. Programs fitting any of these profiles seldom build sufficient buy-in or momentum to endure over time.

Part of the challenge to designing an effective employee engagement program is that the very word "sustainability" does not resonate with everyone. Many misunderstand it or find it abstract and removed from their everyday concerns and experience. To be effective, employee engagement around sustainability must be comprehensible and relevant to employees’ daily reality — it must be presented in a way that they can relate to their personal values, their families, their workplaces, and their broader personal and professional goals.

Companies often mistake prioritizing an initiative for getting employees deeply engaged. Effective sustainability engagement must connect to the heartbeat of the company, which means it must connect to the values and priorities in the hearts of its employees. In the employee engagement trainings we run, we first ask employees to list the five most important things in their lives. The top three typically touch on family and friends, God, and some variation of financial security.

Making sustainability relevant and accessible means finding a hook that will resonate with each employee’s individual priorities. For some it may mean, “My job is here next year so my family can be healthy and happy.” For others, “Making products in a way that does more good and less harm.” And for those with children or an acute sense of their own legacy, it may mean “making decisions today that will make our grandchildren grateful — and proud.” There’s no single right answer.

And why is it so important to give people the flexibility to make it personal? Because “I care about this…and therefore I will take action” is a much easier step than “That’s an abstract idea that’s very far from what matters in my life…and therefore I will take action.” Personal connections and perceived responsibility drive ownership. Lukewarm affinity to an abstract idea does not.

One multinational client of ours wanted to engage employees on sustainability and had an idea where to start. Aluminum is a major raw material in their manufacturing, yet they had a problem with aluminum recycling in their plant. Their recycling rate was low and collection bins were consistently cross-contaminated — unexpected in a sophisticated plant that makes a complicated product with very high quality standards.

The plant manager addressed her employees: “You all are part of making some of the very best products in the world. You manufacture with precision and complexity most people can’t begin to understand. What I just can’t understand is why — given what we do and what we know — when it comes to our recycling, we can’t seem to put the round can into the appropriate round hole.” The answer was simple. It’s not that employees were incapable of performing the simple task of recycling. They just didn’t care so they didn’t bother.

But how could they bridge the gap and make sustainability relevant? What they did was connect the market impact of aluminum recycling to the cost structure of their products. Recycling can lower costs (reducing what we don’t want) and raise employment (increasing what we do want). With this knowledge, recycling rates significantly increased and cross-contamination decreased. Recycling ceased to be “something my supervisor encourages but I don’t really care about” and instead became “something I do because I know how it impacts me.”

If done well, employee engagement extends far beyond education, recycling, and small acts of conservation or reuse. We have worked with companies that have been able to effectively build upon their continuous improvement infrastructures — TQM, Lean, etc — and provide employees the tools to apply their sustainability awareness, desire for action, and wisdom of processes and products. The results have been remarkable, with millions of dollars in savings and added value.

Employees are yearning to contribute to a sustainable company, sustainable future and sustainable planet. We can truly engage them and harness their positive energy to generate positive results, or we can ignore this potential and let this opportunity — to improve our culture, our company and our financial results — slip away. 

Catherine is CEO and Co-founder of Cleargreen Advisors. She brings her clients over 20 years of experience in the implementation of sustainability procedures to the work force. She leads sustainability and resource efficiency projects for clients ranging… [Read more about Catherine Greener]

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