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Employee Engagement—Your Secret Sustainability Weapon

Julie Klein

Sustainability is now a commonly used catchword and focus for all businesses on some level. For many being a “green” or sustainable organization can be a daunting task, but is increasingly becoming a business imperative. Rest assured you are most likely doing more than you think.  The triple bottom line approach of sustainability—people, planet and profit (or more recently productivity)—focuses on ensuring financial profitability is aligned with other key performance indicators such as environmental best practice, employee health and well-being, and community stewardship.

The most successful businesses realize that engaged employees are key to a winning culture and the organization’s long-term growth. This is certainly true relative to sustainability initiatives. Your employees are truly your secret weapon in moving forward on the sustainability path.

It wasn’t too many years ago when little data and evidence existed on the power of employee engagement—especially relative to sustainability leadership. As recent as 2010, leading employee engagement and research firms had limited questions in their engagement surveys around the topic of sustainability in their norming questions for high performing companies.  Fortunately, this has shifted and compelling data and evidence has been captured by Willis Towers Watson and Net Impact and media outlets including Fortune and Fast Company. This is further illustrated in the commitments of global to much smaller hospitality companies such as InterContinental Hotels Group, Accor, Caesars Entertainment, Vail Resorts and Soneva to name just a few of the industry sector leaders who demonstrate the benefits for job seekers to veteran personnel that engaging employees in sustainability galvanizes them to your organization.

Net Impact’s Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012 revealed it increases job satisfaction by a 2:1 ratio1. Further, employees are increasingly seeking out companies who prioritize sustainability and stewardship. Every job function presents an opportunity to offer employees a connection to drive passion; purpose to the company culture, and, efficiency to the bottom line.

Four Common Characteristics

There are several key indicators of high performing sustainability companies, but all seem to share at least these characteristics to engage employees:

  • Committed leadership and empowered mid-management and front-line employees.
  • Clearly communicated sustainability strategy and priorities aligned and integrated with overall business goals and plans.
  • Creative employee engagement and incentive programs.
  • Support consistent communication and engagement through a sustainability (green) team.

If you think about industry leaders, there is truthfully no secret code to move the needle on sustainability best practice and employee engagement. It’s about knowing your company impacts, your brand, your employees, and making a thoughtful commitment to do things differently. The key characteristics are applicable well beyond sustainability efforts and are critical to enterprise-wide success.

Drilling down into one key characteristic, here are some tips on convening a winning sustainability team.

Organizing Your Green (Sustainability) Team

A cross-functional team is paramount to guiding your company’s sustainability journey. This team is critical to ensure implementation of organizational priorities within environmental, health and safety, and corporate stewardship/community engagement.

For starters, build your team with a personal invitation from a passionate senior executive and have them stay involved. They don’t have to attend every meeting, but their presence and support needs to be consistent and visible.

When establishing the team, keep these basics in mind:

  • Build team membership to represent key business functions—daily operations (i.e., culinary, housekeeping, front office, etc.), engineering, human resources, sales & marketing, IT, finance and accounting.
  • Designate a chair and co-chair (or similar based on your organizational culture).
  • Meet regularly.
  • Set an agenda and capture key actions—include environmental, health & safety, and community engagement.
  • Integrate relevant training topics such as—energy & water conservation, recycling and waste reduction, safe use of chemicals, employee volunteerism, and guest/customer engagement.
  • Build in department tours, field trips or a volunteer project periodically to keep participants engaged.
  • Be sure to recognize employee contributions to the effort.
  • Try to make it fun…providing food also helps.

Additional actions to support the work of the team:

  • Choose a platform for communication and program management that is accessible to all targeted employees (e.g., intranet sites, shift meetings, employee newsletters, etc.)
  • Support development of an organizational Sustainability Policy Statement. Hint: Leverage existing organizational mission and vision statements.
  • Identify strategy and prioritize action plans aligned with other organizational performance goals. You are far more likely to gain and sustain momentum if your sustainability priorities are integrated and not a “bolt on” to existing work.
  • Support cultural integration of sustainability values. Think about how sustainability enhances the company’s employee brand.
  • Ensure that sustainability actions (goals) are monitored, measured and communicated to all appropriate internal and external stakeholders. Hint: Start with the basics—know how much energy and water is used and waste generated and recycled/diverted. More advanced in your efforts, be sure to capture community volunteer hours and cash and in-kind contributions. Better yet, tie to employee performance and evaluation!
  • Identify messaging to support marketing communications to help tell the story of your commitments. Keep those marketing communications leads engaged. Their creative energy is invaluable in driving initiatives and linking external stakeholders.
  • Form working groups looping in other employees as needed to address specific priorities and resources to support sustainability initiatives. This provides meaningful engagement deeper into the organization.
  • Evaluate external/third party certification and recognition opportunities. Pursuing third-party verification can add a bit of work and formality to your efforts, but it certainly raises the stakes and reinforces transparency around your work to the outside world. Leading programs range in their rigors—TripAdvisor Green Leaders, Green Globe, and EarthCheck are just a few that focus on the hospitality and tourism industry in North America.

Everyone is increasingly busy and few employees appreciate additional meetings, so to more seamlessly bring this all together, leverage an existing committee or employee engagement effort and build from there. You will be surprised to see how many of your employees are truly interested in making a contribution.

Julie Klein is Principal of Confluence Sustainability and can be reached at Julie@ConfluenceSustainability.com.

1 Net Impact Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012—Denver Business Journal, October 9, 2015