3 Ways to Make Employee Engagement for Sustainability Sexier

By Caroline Nolan

Leveraging social media and strategic branding strategies to engage employees to attain business objectives and improve environmental sustainability performance

I was in a sustainability-related business meeting recently when the topic of employee engagement arose in a discussion of areas of focus.

“Yawn,” said one participant. “Not sexy.”

It’s true. Employee engagement lacks the raw excitement many may have for other sustainability topics such as extreme weather and climate change, green building, urban agriculture or biodiversity.  For some, the very phrase “employee engagement,” conjures up images of memos, procedures and policies, and boring lunch ‘n learns – underscoring a popular mindset that it lay within the sole domain of HR. (It’s doesn’t.)

Photo credit: spaceamoeba

When you’re dealing with the environmental sustainability challenge day-in-day-out, it’s easy to get a bit cynical, if not bored, and pull towards the latest and greatest, the topics that are more, well, engaging.

But here is another truth: if you don’t engage employees in your quest to become a more sustainable organization, you are not likely to achieve bottom-line benefits such as reduced and avoided costs and capitalizing on new marketing opportunities, or improve your organization’s environmental performance (not to mention strengthened brand reputation). Your team can be an endless source of innovation and therefore, your greatest asset.

So what’s a jaded environmental sustainability champion to do? Well, put some oomph back into the relationship with your employees. Spice it up and try some new toys. Add “internal branding” to the employee engagement mix, and now you have sexy. Throw in social media and the topic becomes practically triple XXX-rated.

Internal branding, you may ask? For many, “brand” is synonymous with “logo” (think of Nike’s famous swoosh, or the golden arches of McDonald’s) but really, it’s so much more and represents a powerful business strategy, among other things.

An internal branding strategy for sustainability isn’t just about creating a pretty logo for the grassroots green team – it’s far more strategic. It serves to embed and align sustainability throughout the organization, creating an everyday culture of sustainability which nurtures employee innovation and performance.

A strong trend for employee engagement for sustainability involves the use of multi-audience strategic branding strategies. Here are real-life examples from three Canadian companies whom I believe are doing a terrific job of making employee engagement more exciting.

  1. The Co-operators, an national insurer based in Guelph, Ontario, recently ranked No. 1 among the Best 50 Corporate Citizens in Canada, has done a great job of this with the creation of a visual brand identity (see “Sustainability: Taking care of tomorrow—today” ). With a few simple words, this visual identity crisply encapsulates their vision for sustainability for both internal and external stakeholders and is a reflection of how they have integrated sustainability into their core ideology. The brand can resonate with both internal and external audiences; a strong symbol that demonstrates commitment to playing a leadership role towards ensuring a sustainable future. (As an aside, click here to learn more about how The Natural Step Canada helped the Co-operators develop their sustainable business strategy and guide its integration through employee engagement.)
  2. Another great example of strategic branding that speaks to multiple stakeholders comes from Lakeside Logistics, a Canadian-based leader in logistics. Lakeside’s Vision Green is a visual expression of its commitment to environmental sustainability that is backed up by a solid business strategy for sustainability and website with loads of information for carriers, customers and other stakeholders, including employees. This public-facing, easy-to-use, branded interface also serves to proudly recognize and celebrate the achievements of its stakeholders, especially the efforts of its employees and internal Green Team.
  3. RBC, Canada’s largest financial institution,demonstrates the power of leveraging social media for engagement across multiple audiences. In mid-May 2011, RBC launched its “Join the Wave™” campaign (part of its’ impressive RBC Blue Water Project) to its employees first. For every person that joined the wave on Facebook by June 10, 2011 (“RBC Blue Water Day”), the corporation would donate $1, up to $100,000 to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for its water programs. In less than a month, nearly 72,000 people joined the wave including many RBC employees. Employees were further invited to share their water-conservation efforts with all at the RBC Zone.

The brilliance of this branding strategy is how it not only educates employees about the RBC Blue Water Project and water issues, but how it actively engaging employees with the organization by inviting them to share information about water issues through their social media networks and participate in deciding where corporate charitable giving funds should be allocated. Who wouldn’t want to work for an organization with exciting, sustainability-related employee engagement campaigns such as this?

The key is to go beyond thinking about employee engagement strategies for sustainability as something that originates in HR and take a more holistic view. Other players should be at the discussion table from the beginning, including those responsible for your communications and marketing activities. By engaging these individuals early on, you may find innovative, cost-effective ways to leverage marketing efforts already underway.

Finally, never “green-wash” stakeholders, especially employees; anything you crow about on the sustainability front needs to be aligned with your organization’s core ideology, brand proposition and, of course, business strategy and objectives.

So who’s yawning now? As you can see, employee engagement need not be boring and can, in fact, be quite clever and slick – if not downright sexy. It just takes a willingness to explore and play with new ideas and new media.

Caroline Nolan, M.Sc., GRP is a sustainable business and media & marketing communications expert who has successfully run her own consulting business for over a decade. She is the founder of ThinkSustain® Consulting in Toronto and a proud associate of The Natural Step Canada. She can be reached at caroline[AT]thinksustain.com.

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One Response to 3 Ways to Make Employee Engagement for Sustainability Sexier

  1. Steve says:

    The “sexification” of our internal efforts to draw staff in saw early success, but also faded quickly no matter what type of spin was placed upon it. Especially in the rank and file of the hands on labour force.

    As the CEO, I found the bottom line is for the corporation to grow a spine and stand true to its sustainability / green beliefs. Not many have this as it often interferes with profitability. Many corporations have an Illusionary façade of being green, but under the skin, truly aren’t.

    Our ultimate solution was to re-think the entire internal operation of our facility. Policies and Procedures were re-written and adopted into day-to-day operations. Our Employees quickly learned that this is how we do business. Like it or not. Yes, this is what it came down to after years of valiant effort by my senior management team.

    After a decade of effecting change, our corporation is probably one of the environmentally friendly in the Province, if not Canada. Sustainability and Green tactics must come from within and be born at the boardroom table. The corporation must have the fortitude to stand by and administer its convictions. Walk the talk in other words. More of this is needed greatly in the corporate world.

    If so far as the consumer, we must all stand up and look at not only how the product was manufactured but also what is the life cycle of that product? Our product is 100% biodegradable or recyclable. No toxic constituents are used or generated in product. Other similar products that tout themselves as green, but have an incredibly toxic manufacturing process. A system of rating products must be developed and implemented outside corporate control. Full circle manufacturing with life cycle specifications must fully be taken into account. This is the next front of the movement that must be implemented soon.

    If your company is serious about change, roll up your sleeves, draft a new internal operational plan, launch it, enforce it and better it as you move forward. Nothing else worked for us in the long run other than committing to the process on a daily operations level.

    As for the staff the change was difficult, as it always seems to be with the human animal. But now we have compliance and better yet, the staff is now freely offering ways to better the system.


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