How HR can bridge the sustainability gap and boost employee engagement

4 minute read
Sustainability could become one of the most powerful levers of employee engagement an organisation has, says Aaron McEwan, VP Advisory at consultancy Gartner. But there’s still a sustainability engagement gap. He offers his tips on how organisations – and HR in particular – can bridge that gap

Graphic of people holding up the world

Aaron McEwan has a cautionary tale. Some 20 years ago he worked at a company whose CEO was passionate about sustainability but, in an attempt to be “taken seriously,” failed to communicate this. Meanwhile clients were increasingly wanting to engage with organisations that had the same commitments to sustainability that they did. And employees were involved in sustainability actions in their personal, but not work, life. This, says McEwan, was “one of the biggest lost opportunities that I could see.”

“If we had pulled all of those threads together we could have had an organisation that was delivering on the expectations of its customers and clients. One that was connecting employees to the vision and mission of the organisation but also to the values of that CEO and the type of environment that I think he wanted to create.”

But this organisation did not provide opportunities for employees to get involved. And two decades later not much has changed McEwan, VP Advisory, told delegates at the Gartner ReimagineHR conference in London, UK.

This does not mean organisations are not interested in sustainability, however. The good news, he says, is that boards are today committed with sustainability (or ESG: environmental, social and governance) being a top priority. “CEOs and boards care about this stuff,” says McEwan.

Leaders are increasingly prioritising sustainability ©Gartner

But Gartner research finds the sustainability engagement gap remains an issue today. While 67% of employees rate at least six out of 10 sustainability-related issues as highly important, only 31% believe their company provides adequate resources to support sustainability goals. Another lost opportunity, despite the benefits a culture of sustainability delivers for organisations. According to McEwan a culture that aligns sustainability with employee passions improves the financial performance of organisations. It tends to create more shareholder value and reduces risk, particularly in a world where everybody's watching.

Organisations that have deep commitment and are making progress on sustainability are also more attractive to employees. This, says McEwan, places chief human resources officers right at the centre of this issue.

Employee interest in sustainability chart ©Gartner

What is sustainability?

At Gartner the definition of sustainability is “an outcome where an enterprise makes balanced decisions about its positive and negative contributions to environmental and economic impacts, both in the short term, medium and long term.”

But sustainability means different things at different companies based on ‘materiality assessments’ of priorities, such as climate change, carbon footprint, sustainable sourcing of materials or slave labour. To conduct these assessments organisations engage with a range of stakeholders to understand where sustainability efforts should focus, but too often they do not listen to their employees as much as they listen to shareholders and those in charge of the regulatory environment in which they operate. Employees need a greater voice in these assessments, says McEwan.

It’s all about culture

“Sustainability requires a culture where people are committed,” McEwan says. This involves both aligning employees to sustainability goals and connecting with them at a values level. Employees need to understand the culture, believe in it and demonstrate aligned behaviours. This requires both alignment and connectedness.

However, only 16% of employees say their company has a strong culture of sustainability. Yet again there is a missed opportunity to leverage sustainability to drive employee engagement. Fostering this type of culture can increase employee engagement by up to 43%.

“We're missing the alignment piece but we're almost also missing the connection piece,” says McEwan. “And, again, it’s a lost opportunity because this is what it looks like when we actually have that strong culture of sustainability - we can improve employee engagement by up to 43%. Think about that number. We don't see numbers like that in the world of engagement any more. Most employees around the world are not engaged with their organisation. So sustainability might potentially become one of the most powerful levers of engagement that we have.”

Managers are a bottleneck to sustainability culture but can also facilitate it, he says. Personalised goal setting, leveraging "connector managers", forming peer cohorts and providing development opportunities can drive sustainability culture. Employees should feel their passions are valued and they can meaningfully contribute.

A strong culture of sustainability is uncommon graphic ©Gartner

McEwan suggests some action points for HR leaders to help close this opportunity gap:

  • Conduct a materiality assessment of sustainability priorities with substantial employee input
  • Communicate sustainability goals across the organisation and gauge ongoing employee perspectives through your employee surveys
  • Incorporate sustainability behaviours into rewards and recognition programs
  • Train managers to set sustainability goals with employees and connect them to resources
  • Form sustainability cohorts for managers and employees to share best practices
  • Provide formal training, mentoring and project opportunities related to sustainability
  • Let employees choose which sustainability initiatives to get involved in based on their passions

Organisations have much to gain by tapping into employee sustainability passions. But this requires a cultural commitment to actively make it easier for people to contribute to sustainability opportunities. “Don’t let sustainability be a lost opportunity,” urges McEwan. With strategic alignment and connection companies can turn employees into sustainability champions and deliver real benefits to the business.

Published 27 September 2023
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