Communicating Sustainability to Your Employees
Internal communications are critical to any successful sustainability program. Key employees and departments must understand how the program affects their organizational functions so that they “buy in.”
It is important to engage internal stakeholders in the design, adoption and promotion of a sustainability (or corporate social responsibility) program before significantly communicating the commitment to the outside world. This is a role for upper management to lead, and the sustainability team to help clarify the significance of this effort to the company’s business profile, products, employees and future.
According to one leading expert , unless carefully managed, the corporate social responsibility goals of a sustainability program may be viewed as somehow contrary to the goals of other departments. A lack of understanding can result in resistance.
That’s why the sustainability management team must invest upfront in communication. Not only will it educate the employees but it affords them the opportunity to provide input that may enhance the corporate program.
Many of these key employees interact frequently with suppliers, customers, and others in the industry; it is critical to proactively engage and educate all internal stakeholders and get their buy-in early, before they have the opportunity to develop (and share) and uninformed opinion. The sustainability team should determine which staff are key internal stakeholders early in the process (e.g., safety, environmental, legal, marketing, investor relations, corporate communications, HR, finance), and develop an effective communication plan that engages and informs all stakeholders.
In their 2005 article, Joseph Fiksel, Robert Axelrod and Susan Russell describe employee communications as a three-step process. (view article)
- “Define what sustainability means to the company and articulate a value proposition – how sustainability drives business value.” According to Fiksel, Axelrod and Russell, most companies begin with a vision statement about how sustainability will help them create business value for customers and shareholders, and then continue to address value creation for customers and other stakeholders, the environment, and society at large. The three aspects of the “triple bottom line” (social, economic, and environmental) are intertwined and should be addressed in an integrated manner.
Composing vision statements provides an opportunity to frame sustainability as what it means to your company and its stakeholders. This is the message to communicate to employees and other stakeholders, and to form the basis for sustainability program strategies and tactics. AMI’s voluntary sustainability principles for the meat industry may be a useful starting point. Click here to view the AMI’s voluntary sustainability principles for the meat industry.
For example, Motorola’s 2003 Global Corporate Citizenship Report states, “As a global climate citizen, Motorola creates products and technologies that benefit society by making things smarter and life better for people around the world. We are dedicated to operating ethically, protecting the environment and supporting the communities in which we do business. We are guided by our Code of Business Conduct, which is based on our key beliefs of uncompromising integrity and constant respect for people."
Composing such a vision statement and setting goals for sustainability are among the first steps AMI members should take in initiating a sustainability effort.
- Engage employees Sustainability starts from within. Collaborate with employees to discuss sustainability in terms of their job functions. Help them define their roles in achieving the business’ sustainability goals. Because much of the pressure for adopting sustainability programs comes from outside the company (e.g., NGOs, investors, customers in the supply chain), many companies initiate sustainability programs and publish reports directed to external stakeholders. However, it is important that employee engagement is not a lower priority than the development of a public report. Otherwise, many employees might not understand sustainability and might be cynical about its benefits and authenticity.
- Implement and continuously refine the strategy using various communications channels, including a sustainability report Engaging your employees in realizing the value-creation opportunities in your sustainability strategy begins with development of a cross-functional core team that includes corporate communications, environmental health and safety, human resources, investor relations, and others.
Fiksel, Axelrod and Russell also identify five fundamentals for an effective internal communications program.
Find sustainability common ground
One of the barriers many companies encounter is the lack of a shared understanding of what “sustainability” means. Basing a communications strategy on a poorly defined or overly broad concept can confuse the audience and create unrealistic expectations. “Search for language that resonates with employees and management alike, define it clearly, and above all, use frequent and consistent messaging. Be sure the language is interwoven with the company’s branding messages and business objectives so that employees see it as an integral business commitment and not just a bolted-on, short-lived initiative.”
Create a positioning statement
Engage your marketing experts to create the core message you want to deliver in every medium to influence the perceptions of your stakeholders. That message is likely to evolve to affect training programs, publications, marketing brochures and advertisements, and your website.
Translate the messaging into the meaningful language of various functions
Starting from the linguistic common ground, translate the general sustainability messaging into the languages of safety and health, environmental, human resources, purchasing, investor relations, sales and marketing, government relations. This helps convey the value proposition to those who will take ownership and continuously improve corporate performance.
Leverage the communications multiplier effect
Taking the sustainability efforts from the CEO and corporate team to the whole company requires leveraging the communications effort. Fiksel, Axelrod and Russell state there may also be the need to overcome the “silo mentality” that persists in many companies, where organizational units remain territorial and highly focused on their specific missions and financial results. It is important to spread the management team’s sustainability communications to the whole company. Internal gatekeepers – those trusted employees with a high degree of credibility – play a key role here.
Plan for the long haul
Leading sustainability thinkers say that when it comes to sustainability, there is no end point. It is a continuing journey requiring patience and commitment to continuous improvement. Although programs evolve, some degree of consistency is important.
For a sustainability program to be credible and successful, the alignment, engagement and enthusiasm of employees – both managers and the workforce – are essential.
Sustainability in Action!
Environmental Outreach to the Public/2009 AMI Environmental Achievement First Place Award Winner. Sara Lee in Claryville, Kentucky, launched a green commuter program that provides preferred parking to team members who car pool or drive a hybrid or other alternative fuel cars. Today, 35 car pool groups involving 85 team members have signed up and total vehicle miles driven by team members have been reduced by 2,500 miles a day or 650,000 less vehicle miles a year.
Environmental Training Program/2009 AMI Environmental Achievement First Place Award Winner. Hormel Foods in Austin developed training materials for distribution and use at various locations to reduce travel to training sites. Hormel spent less than $20,000 to develop the training materials, but estimates that it has saved $100,000 in training fees and travel costs.
Jennie O Turkey Store in Barron, Wisconsin, began an extensive employee education program to encourage recycling. Blue recycling receptacles were labelled in English and Somali and the slogan “Blue will get us green” was adopted. The total rate of recycling has increased each year since the program was started and tons sent to the landfill are down by roughly two percent since the program was started in 2007.