A recent Gartner survey reported that 64% of employees say they want to work for an organization with a strong social and environmental conscience.1 Yet leaders often struggle to engage employees in sustainability initiatives. When I speak to supply chain leaders about how to build a culture of sustainability, they often ask me: “How can we effectively engage our employees on sustainability?” Closing this engagement gap is complex but imperative, as employees at all levels and in every geography need to champion sustainability for an enterprise to hit ambitious targets.
Leaders can begin by understanding where their employees stand today relative to their enterprise’s values by using the Employee Sustainability Engagement Matrix (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 helps supply chain leaders understand how enterprise purpose intersects with employee purpose in order to better align these dimensions:
Peripheral: Employees engage with sustainability through enterprise purpose but are not driven by personal commitment. Sustainability strategy is executed at the leadership level or within a central team, with little engagement from the broader organization unless a stakeholder is directly tied to strategic objectives.
Fragmented: Employees are personally committed to sustainability and engage in siloed initiatives led by business units, regions or employees. The organization does little to gather employee sentiment or align corporate values to sustainability.
Disengaged: The organization aligns with traditional measures of value, such as profit or service, and does not engage employees on sustainability. Employees do not feel sustainability aligns with their personal values but may feel aligned with the organization’s non-sustainability focused objectives.
Aligned: Employees feel a shared purpose with their organization, where sustainability is aligned to organizational values and employee commitment. Employees have organizational support and are given channels to share and act on their ideas.
Aligning employee values with enterprise purpose may not be realistic, or even desirable, for every organization. Some organizations may be at the beginning of their sustainability journey and are still building the business case for setting certain goals. Others may have priorities that are inherently at odds with a sustainability agenda or are tight on resources and budget. Regardless, employees with a strong commitment to sustainability may engage in internal activism, become unmotivated at work or leave for an organization that better aligns with their values.
In organizations with a fragmented employee base, employees, regions or business units run in their own direction, leading to a diluted purpose and an inefficient use of resources. Maverick initiatives could contradict enterprise values or even lead to reputational damage. Conversely, when employees are peripheral, organizations need to better understand what motivates their employee base and how to gain alignment.
Shift the Employee Base
Once leaders understand where employees fall, the question becomes: How can we shift employees to where the organization wants to be? The following tactics are ways leaders can engage employees on sustainability.
Listen: Employees can be an organization’s greatest champions or harshest critics. Currently, 83% of organizations say they conduct employee culture surveys, but only 39% conduct ESG issue surveys.2 Supply chain leaders can collect employee sentiment through different engagement mechanisms, including surveys, focus groups and analyses of employee behavior in engagement channels and platforms.
Start by engaging “runners” who are passionate about sustainability and have a high willingness to act (See Figure 2). These individuals can identify initiatives that motivate employees and generate early insights for building a business case.
It is natural to want to work with “walkers” or “won’t-run” employees to try and convince them to engage. However, organizations will see better results when they flip the focus to find and leverage the “runners”. “Joggers” will look to “runners” first and are highly influenced by them. “Walkers” will wait to see how other employees engage and follow the leaders. Some “won’t-run” employees can be influenced; however, these individuals will feel strongly about not prioritizing sustainability and are likely not worth the effort to engage.
Provide engagement channels: Consider what channels can be implemented to encourage employee autonomy. If an employee has an idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will they know how to act on it? Provide a platform for employees to submit ideas and encourage peer-to-peer competition. Reward and recognize employees who embrace sustainability and pursue their personal passions.
Assess sustainability strategy through an employee-centric lens: Employees need to feel energized by, and included in, the journey through shared purpose. Organizations should move to integrate directional opinions into their materiality assessment and sustainability strategy. Some organizations use ESG issue surveys for employees and other stakeholders to directly guide a materiality assessment, while others rely on senior leaders to indirectly report on these sentiments.
To learn more about building a culture of sustainability see 3 CSCO Actions to Create a Culture of Sustainability and Achieve GHG Reduction Targets.
Senior Principal Analyst
Gartner Supply Chain
1The 2020 Gartner ReimagineHR Employee Surveys.
22021 Gartner ESG Panel Benchmarking Survey.