The reputational threat that just might be under your nose
In the clatter of commentary from investors, NGOs, regulators, elected officials, activists, reporters, and the dozens of other groups judging corporate responsibility, it’s easy to forget the one stakeholder group right under your nose – employees.
That audience alone has the potential to have by far the greatest influence on your reputation as a corporate citizen. Every day they have access to your customers – either delivering or undermining the messages that you have so carefully constructed. They influence the opinions of their neighbors and family much more powerfully than the traditional communications channels we target with resources. They are the truth tellers about how closely your company is really embracing corporate values.
It doesn’t matter if you have five employees or 400,000. Every single one has the ability to publicly challenge your status as a good employer, a generous community contributor, an environmental steward, and a corruption-free company.
So how do you harness the energy and influence of employees to your advantage? How do you convert them into sustainability evangelists?
The essential elements are: culture, authenticity, credibility, and activation.
The idea that culture grows organically is a fool’s path. The values and expectations of a corporation must be institutionalized. On Day One, new employees should be introduced to values about integrity, personal responsibility, community service, environmental stewardship, and customer service. Official documents such as the company policy book, management guidelines, the code of conduct and even performance metrics should include sustainability principles. At UPS, our policy book articulates employee responsibilities, and every company meeting is supposed to include a reading and discussion of its contents.
Frequent and ubiquitous messages about sustainability are essential, delivered by all levels of management. We utilize multiple communications – social media, home-delivered publications, video, an intranet site, and person-to-person scripts– to ensure that the messages are received. We have institutionalized daily messages about the company that are mandatory – some are financial, some are customer or operationally focused and some highlight topics such as volunteerism, saving fuel, being safe and living our values.
No matter how frequently and vehemently a company communicates its principles, employees won’t believe them if they aren’t authentic. It must make sense for the company’s business and culture. Inside the company, manager behavior must match the assertions. As a discordant example: A company verbally encourages employees to volunteer yet penalizes them for taking time off to do community service. Another common mistake is when a company adopts a cause (often a favorite of a top executive) but it has no connectivity to the skills and knowledge within the company. Such an approach not surprisingly is likely to generate lackluster interest from employees. Still another fractured approach is when the company touts leadership in a particular area, such as environmental stewardship, yet behavior within the company contradicts the message – i.e. massive fines for hazardous waste spills or a total disregard for recycling or water conservation. Employees notice.
So one of the first things any company should do is to look at the mirror and inside their company walls to make sure they are “walking the talk.”
Credibility means taking a measured and quantifiable approach to sustainability. Increasingly critics and supporters alike are judging companies based on a set methodology. Third-party scorecards give the company rankings; NGOs call out violators and champions; awards recognize excellence; reporting frameworks, like the Global Reporting Initiative and the Carbon Disclosure Project, allow customers and others to compare competitors.
In this brave new world of social media, even blogger commentary and Tweets can be used to show that your sustainability efforts are praise-worthy.
These third-party credentials can be powerful tools to convince an employee that his company is on a path worth supporting. Positive scores and awards can instill pride within the organization. They can attract new employees that are seeking out employers who share their values, and reinforce the decision of those new employees who joined the company based on that premise. Even a bad score can be good, especially if the result drives changes that demonstrate the company is committed to sustainability leadership.
We have talked a lot about how communications can support employee education and support. But ultimately, the goal is to engage employees. Employees are most likely to talk positively about sustainability efforts when they personally are involved.
Motivation can be as diverse as your employee base. Of course, sometimes a cause is personal rather than a corporate driven initiative. The best recruiters are fellow employees, who inspire others to join their efforts. This is especially true of top executives, whose participation in sustainability activities should be documented and distributed.
But activation also can be sparked by the company: using volunteerism as a team-building exercise, instituting company goals around sustainability, using community service projects for leadership training. Consider having your employees join their customers on community projects as part of your sales outreach programs. Position sustainability and community service as a competitive advantage.
And never underestimate the power of company goal-setting and rewards. We recently added volunteer hour goals to our annual balanced scorecard which determines bonuses at the end of the year. Now, our various districts are competing with each other.
Progress on other sustainability goals should be reported widely, boldly and often. Individual managers should be held accountable for results.
Finally, we can’t forget recognition. One of the best ways to encourage engagement is to publicly honor those already participating. Positive reinforcement shows that the company values the efforts of its employees.
Stories of successful projects and inspirational activities can spur others to find their own bliss. We have an annual award for the company’s top volunteer – the employee story is presented in video form, in press releases and media interviews, on our website and in publications. The employee also is invited to an exclusive meeting of the company’s top managers including the CEO.
Encourage your most passionate volunteers and sustainability project leaders to tell their stories of engagement. Some of the most impactful ways to get employees involved in sustainability is to inspire them to action.
In closing, a successful sustainability program targets employees as systematically as other stakeholder groups. The key is to leverage their passion and numbers to deliver your messages far and wide. To neglect them is a reputational risk.