Get Your Employees Excited About Sustainability

By Josiah McClellan

Happy employees can be energized by more than casual Fridays and chocolate donut Mondays. Your company’s sustainability initiatives can be a source of pride for your employees—if they’re invested in those projects.

Consider these statistics: The 2007 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey reported that 77 percent of Americans consider a company’s environmental reputation when choosing an employer. But a Harris Interactive study released in early 2008 showed that only 21 percent of U.S. workers consider their employer to be “green.”

With nearly a third of U.S. consumers cynical of businesses promoting their green credentials, internal communications leaders have their work cut out for them if they are to rally the workforce. Fortunately, there are some proven methods for getting employees up to speed—and invested in—corporate sustainability programs.

Involve Employees from the Beginning

Employees who have input into a company’s sustainability goals are more likely to stay on board and see them realized. In The Sustainability Advantage, author Bob Willard conducted surveys that showed 20 percent of employees would not leave their employer if they were attracted to the company’s sustainability initiatives. The most efficient way to ensure employees are attracted to your initiatives is to allow them to help create the initiatives in the first place.

Senior management certainly needs to drive the dialogue about sustainability. However, don’t neglect the insights that the employee base can bring to the table. Include them in the dialogue about how the company can be more sustainable. Set up workplace committees with the goals of creating a greener work environment. Build a new section of your Intranet devoted to gathering input from employees.

A major printing company, whose name we can’t divulge, set a goal to reduce its waste by 20 percent over five years. Its executive team naturally focused on finding ways to streamline its printing operations to reduce paper waste. However, when the internal communications team reached out to all employees through a series of brainstorms, it was a receptionist who pointed out the number of individual lunches delivered to the office every day created a significant amount of food packaging waste. By investing in a small café and encouraging employees to do lunch buffet style, the printer reduced twice as much waste as it did by streamlining its printing operations.

Make it Real

For many employees at the grassroots level, corporate sustainability initiatives can seem highly abstract and esoteric. It’s hard for the individual worker to figure out her role when the company web site says that a key goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent.

The success of a company’s sustainability initiatives lies in the ability of its employees to contribute to those vague targets. You won’t hit energy use goals if your employees are leaving their office lights on all night and running space heaters under their desks. Look for ways to bring corporate goals down to individual levels. Recruit some employees to role play every day scenarios that show how employees can be more eco-friendly, record them and then use them as a series of vignettes during staff meetings. Write a top 10 tip-sheet highlighting ways that employees can contribute. If you have an employee newsletter, create a column where an employee is interviewed about what he or she is doing for the environment around the workplace.

Don’t neglect to reinforce results with your employees, either. If your company has sustainability goals, hopefully they are tracking those goals and recording the progress, so you can share that information with your workers. If you can get progress data for each business unit, that’s even better. Employee investment—and morale—will rise when they see the results of their hard work.

Give Tools for Personal Lives

After having the opportunity to attend a Wal-Mart employee rally, Amanda Little wrote about the impact Wal-Mart’s green initiatives are having on employee morale.

Nearly 50 percent of Wal-Mart employees have signed up for the company’s personal sustainability project, which encourages employees to live more sustainable lives by educating them on ways to conserve resources and reduce energy consumption at home.

If a Wal-Mart sized workforce can be mobilized into action through sustainability initiatives, the same opportunity is there for any workforce.

Wal-Mart’s example offers an important insight. Increasing the morale of your workforce requires more than bulletins on the Intranet, internal employee newsletters or pep rally-esque staff meetings.

Get your employees thinking about sustainability in their own lives. Many internal communications departments work in tandem with Human Resources to provide employees with information about healthier lifestyles. Take a similar approach to educate employees about eco-friendly lifestyles. It may not make sense for your company to follow Wal-Mart’s approach with a personal sustainability project, but be sure to offer your employees tools and resources to help them practice sustainability outside of the office.

Ambassadors Inside and Out

Sustainability initiatives are great for the planet and great for boosting workplace morale. By following these best practices, you can start to bring your employees on board with corporate goals. Engaging employees up front, showing them how they can make a contribution, and giving them the tools to make sustainability a part of their own lives will help turn them into more satisfied workers and great ambassadors for your company.

Josiah McClellan, APR, is a vice president at Porter Novelli. He can be reached at josiah.mcclellan@porternovelli.com.

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