Employee Engagement with Sustainability? Hard, Yes. Impossible, No.

You care about sustainability. Your company publishes a corporate responsibility report and has a pretty good website. But people at the company just don’t seem to care. If they’re knowledgeable, they’re skeptical. If they don’t know much, they’re not curious.

Take comfort: You’re not alone.

Many companies struggle to engage employees with sustainability. And while that sounds scary for the planet’s future, given the abundant resources corporations have and how many people they employ, there’s also a silver lining. Anything this common must have common causes we can identify and act on.

Here are a few suggestions from this corner:

Sweat the Small Stuff.

Sustainability is the ultimate “big picture” topic, but many companies trip over the small things when they try to engage employees. Like the Fortune 100 that thought it could turn its most passionate employees into champions of corporate sustainability – except that those people were steamed that the company still didn’t have recycling containers in its facilities.

Or the S&P 500 member that publicly announced that “everyone” at the company supported an ambitious international sustainability program – which only made “everyone” angrier that the company still doesn’t offer incentives for car-pooling or volunteering.

Employee engagement with sustainability has to start with addressing practical things employees care about. Otherwise employees will scoff, justifiably, at the sustainability slogans coming from the C suite.

Mean Something.

How many times have you uttered a clear and complete sentence about sustainability, only to have someone ask “But what does that mean, really?”

Now imagine that every employee has the same question about your company’s sustainability messages. Urk.

If you want to engage employees with sustainability, the first thing to do is dump the words “sustainability” and “responsibility.” Those are “should” words with no specific meaning. Instead, focus on one positive difference the company is already making. Those are “success” words with practical reality. And people are way more likely to engage with something they feel successful at than something they don’t even understand.

Let’s say you’re at a company with aggressive resource management goals. Pick one that’s working, such as cutting down on water use. That’s your wedge issue to make employees proud of, talk about, and get creative with. They didn’t vote for it before it started, but they can sure take credit for making it happen.

Right behind that you sneak in information about other sustainability goals, your employee engagement website, and the online treasure hunt you’re about to launch that uses clues hidden in the new CSR.

Forever afterward, when people ask your employees what sustainability is, they will answer, “At work we cut our water use in half. Water is big in climate change and global hunger, did you know that?”

Build Buzz.

As corporate communicators, we tend to think in terms of big messages that can reach a lot of people. With sustainability, that can be a trap. The topic is already vague and amorphous for most people, and anything we layer on top of it only makes it worse.

The alternative is to do small pilot projects with a piercing focus, and let the story spread through social networks (both live and online). When employees hear about a sustainability engagement program from other employees — not from the corporation — they are more likely to engage with it themselves.

Some companies with great reporting programs never intended to be sustainability reporters at all. Small groups of employees were motivated to start a CSR because they felt competitors were hogging too much limelight, or because they had their own passion for ecology or social services. Such seeds are more likely to become mighty oaks than something you buy from the nursery and stick in the ground.

A skunkworks approach to engaging employees with sustainability has another benefit, too. It lets you test-drive communication and engagement concepts before you scale them up.

Play the C Card.

We all joke about senior executives who jump in front of a parade so they can “lead” it. Behind the joke is a strong strain of skepticism in corporate life. With every new headline about insider trading or stupid personal choices, our lack of faith in business leaders grows. And it makes us doubt anything coming from the C Suite.

Ironically, this skepticism is born of an emotional desire to have faith in our leaders. We still listen when they talk. We want to believe that they deserve our hard work and commitment. It just burns when they let us down.

You’re not going to resolve this paradox with your employee engagement program. But you can avoid getting chewed up in it, by playing the C card carefully.

First rule here is don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. If the CEO has never uttered a word about sustainability, don’t have her pose as a passionate environmentalist in a speech someone wrote for her. This will do more harm than good. And if your whole C suite is a disaster, sustainability-wise, just be patient and keep them on ice. They will start jumping in front of your parade soon enough.

Second rule is to surprise people. Pick someone in the C suite whom employees respect and would never think of as a soft-headed liberal — CFOs and CTOs are usually good candidates – and have them give a speech about what it would take for sustainability to benefit employees and the bottom line.

The executive in question might say a few things that make you cringe, but he or she will believe in those things and employees will know it. There will also be realistic assessments of what the company can and should do, which will open some eyes. Best of all, it will not be about “sustainability.” It will be about the company and its people, and practical stuff like whether we will have a job in five years.

This approach is always a hit with employees, and it’s not hard to understand why. First of all, it comes from the C suite but it’s not BS. It means something. It sweats the small stuff. And it builds buzz.

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