Five “Keys” to Unlock a Successful Sustainability Program - Key 3: Employee Engagement and Empowerment

Five “Keys” to Unlock a Successful Sustainability Program - Key 3: Employee Engagement and Empowerment

Part 6 in the blog series The New PR

Employees are closest to the community of stakeholders because they are community stakeholders with the unique perspective of knowing the needs of both the community and the company.

Recently I attended a conference on social media. One presenter offered up the notion that companies are no longer able to control their ‘brand’ or image using the example of a recent YouTube video ‘United Breaks Guitars’ in which a professional musician sings about how the airline baggage handlers broke his guitar and the company refused to compensate him for the loss of his instrument. When it was my turn to present I asked the audience – in all seriousness – if they really honestly thought that this was something new.

No matter how well the press release is written, how many millions of dollars are spent on advertising, the image of any company or organization is in the hands of the company or organization’s employees; and the image is managed by the actions, behaviors and attitudes of those employees. Good PR or marketing cannot overcome a bad reality. The everyday actions of employees - how they treat customers - influences the way that customers feel about the company.

It does not take a seminal event like the PB oil spill, someone who is unhappy can have an audience of dozens, hundreds or thousands thanks to the internet, and if their experience resonates, the message – whether it be a well-produced music video or a 140 character Tweet – can find its way to millions of people.

The most fundamental reason for empowering employees and engaging them in sustainability programs is the same reason local employees are the best at dealing with customers, communities, regulators, etc.  

Empowering employees is critical because they can help define how the program is implemented by identifying local issues, opinion leaders, and opportunities. But an even more valuable role is that they are closest to, and therefore able to identify, the impediments whether they be cultural, religious or rooted in the existing official and unofficial power structures. If a company wants to win the battle for hearts and minds, they'll do it by actively engaging their employees and treating them as the heart of their success.  

In his book Moral Capitalism Steven Young, global executive director of the Caux Roundtable stresses the critical importance of developing programs that are mindful and respectful of the local indigenous cultures that may be ill equipped to “fight back” against a more technologically advanced one.

“The culture that follows upon successful economic growth is a global one,rooted in American consumerism ... that subverts traditional elites and values. Global business is the carrier of this culture, responding to consumer demands. It is legitimate for business to deliver what people want, but at the same time business should take care that local cultures are not permanently asphyxiated.”

In the deployment of its power, business has a responsibility to moderate its impact on those communities, which can hardly protect themselves against the intrusions.”

Employees at the local level not only represent and offer insight into the local culture, but they often can serve as “ambassadors” – helping the company to understand what the community needs and wants (and what it does not want) and helping to explain the positive intention of the company to the community.

Getting employees to embrace a vision requires commitment, consistency and a willingness to review processes and procedures to ensure that they provide recognition and incentive for the desired behaviors. That means the leader must be willing to challenge everything in order to ensure that the business practices and cultural expectations are in congruence. At all levels of the organization, employees need to be included if they are to be expected to act in ways that support the overall corporate objectives. Sustainability or socially responsible practices remain strong motivator but only if employees are empowered and rewarded for behaviors that are aligned with these values. Human Resources policies and programs must support the vision, including hiring practices, reward, and recognition and incentive programs.

Jack Welch considered successful employees who engaged in behaviors that were out of alignment with the corporate vision and culture to be the most dangerous. Employees (customers and stakeholders) who see people rewarded naturally emulate those behaviors and believe that those actions are the reason that the person is successful. When this happens, it is fair to say that they have been elevated to the level of “maximum damage.” As difficult as it may be to punish or reprimand employees who contribute to the bottom line, their negative example is powerful. If, for example, a manager consistently reaches production targets but does so by repeatedly violating safety procedures employees – and other stakeholders – will see this as a powerful example of what the company “really” stands for and the commitment to safety will be seen as lip service.

Much has been made about the spectacular collapse of companies such as Enron and WorldComm pointing out that each had well-written and widely disseminated policies governing corporate ethics and were lauded as leaders in social responsibility. It is clear that malfeasance and criminal behavior became the norm in these extreme cases, it is notable that the initial turn from entrepreneurial to illegal behavior can be traced to an overwhelming emphasis on short term results and making the quarterly targets through increasingly creative and ultimately criminal accounting. In these cases, the articulated culture and the desired culture were at odds. And the result was catastrophic.

Invoke their Pride and Professionalism

One of the best ways to empower employees is to allow them to use their unique expertise in making the contribution. Allowing employees to use their skills also helps demonstrate the value that the company brings to the community. When backhoe and loader operators from a heavy industrial facility take to the streets to remove snow, the operators take pride in knowing their skills are providing unique value to the community. When a dentist volunteers his time at a local retirement community, the skills that he brings combine with his commitment to the community to demonstrate the value his practice brings – and it allows employees to do good and reminds them of the value their skills bring – and it encourages others to patronize that practice.

Empowered employees that feel good about the work that they are doing and the contribution that their company makes to society are more likely to be productive. A culture of sustainability encourages people to see their work in the greater context. So employees who work in a rock quarry know that they are not just blasting and breaking stone, they are building homes in which people live, hospitals in which their children will be born and schools where those children will be educated. They are helping to build the road that will carry those people from place to place. In short, they are making a contribution without which the quality of life that we enjoy would be impossible.

Build Buy-in at All Levels

Corporate leaders recognize that for a program to be successful, employees much take ownership of it at all levels. Just as safety, environmental stewardship and sound financial practices are considered everyone’s responsibility, these programs can impact and therefore bring benefits to many aspects of a business beyond communications and risk management. 

Strategic planning departments can benefit by (and are hampered when they neglect) the need to understand community opinions regarding the impact of proposed changes. If a company is integrated into the community, reaction to proposed actions can be anticipated and included in planning (including budgets and timelines). Companies that have engaged local community stakeholders are less likely to be surprised by community opposition, and have an opportunity to work with the community to work through the issues.

As a company develops its environmental, safety and ethics policies, it should not do so in isolation. Benchmarking against other companies in the same industry will provide a good understanding of the current state of affairs. Looking to other businesses can provide a greater understanding of what the standard for businesses is in general. Likewise, companies do well to review community standards – what does the local community expect from businesses? This not only helps better define the standard, it has the additional value of helping the company to be attractive to an employee pool that is drawn from the local community. Employees have a personal incentive to work for a company that is protective of their health, safety, their homes and their community at large.

Budgeting must take into consideration realistic expectations of both the time and cost associated with engaging the community. These estimates are facilitated by a good relationship with the community, including regulators. This can help a company accurately budget for anticipated expenses and revenues (including timing).

Lastly, human resources departments have discovered that prospective employees prefer to work for (and with) companies that the feel share their values – especially those that reflect the community concerns and issues. Certainly the idea that people would seek out a safer, financially sound employer is not hard to imagine.

In the next installment: Key 4: Tangible, Local Benefits

To read more posts from this series, click here

John Friedman, an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience, is co-founder and vice chair of the board for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW). 

Friedman has served as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices. 

His insights on sustainability issues and strategy are a regular feature on Huffington Post.

Friedman authored the e-publication The New PR which outlines how companies must modify the way they communicate to meet stakeholders' changing expectations through five proven keys for developing programs that replace "spin" with transparency and unlock the full potential of a sustainability program to build reputational capital. Friedman is currently working on a new book Your Backyard Is My Front Yard.

He can be reached at, is @JohnFriedman on Twitter and can be connected on LinkedIn and Facebook