Power to the people

Employee engagement can be driven through a shared sustainability mission. It’s the task of communication directors to drive this process.



How to recruit and retain the brightest minds? Focus them on the ultimate mission of global sustainability. They get to speak authentically about their work and in doing so they build trust with their peers.

The challenge for communication directors is to join forces with human resources around an aligned sustainability engagement agenda.

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This will boost engagement within and reputation outside. Employees can become champions for the organisation, helping to broadcast to the world why it exists and how it helps address the global challenges of climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, waste, pollution and so on. This army of authentic communicators is hyper-engaged and promotes a positive sustainability reputation with peers. 

So far so good. But here’s the challenge. Employees will fully engage only if the organisation is truly sustainable in the way it handles the public policy agenda, its NGO detractors and global sustainability challenges. Companies today are either part of the problem or part of the solution. If they are part of the solution, they are actively engaged in addressing sustainability challenges.

Evidence shows that companies genuinely allow employees to share the sustainability communication mandate. Communication directors must heed the call for sustainability engagement from employees and be prepared to lead on sustainability communication.

Fasten your seatbelts, the future starts here

Millenials won’t be silenced and they are taking over the workplace, worldwide. If you don’t have them in management yet, then get ready for change. If not, change will be thrust upon your communication strategy and you may no longer be in the driving seat.

Millenials are hyper-connected. They are creating a sharing economy where information flows for free. Organisations can tap into this resource as an authentic communication channel out, but also as a powerful engagement mechanism in, to create authentic content that builds and maintains trust.

Engaging millenials

In 2015 for the first time globally, the millennial generation – people born between 1980 and 2000 – outnumber their older colleagues in the workforce. This demographic shift is changing multiple aspects of the world of work as companies grapple with how to recruit, engage and retain these young professionals.

Millennials differ from their older colleagues in their outlook on the working world. According to a Deloitte Millennial Survey published in 2014, Generation Y – as this demographic is also known – has big demands and expectations of the future workplace. Millennials are spearheading a broad shift amongst people seeking meaning in their jobs, and working toward creating a better world.

Millennials want to work for organisations that foster innovation, develop their skills and make a positive contribution to society. Millennials will shake up the work force, Deloitte says, as they grow to be nearly 75 per cent of the global pool of workers by around 2025.

Yet currently two thirds of the millennial generation are disengaged at work. In response to a desire to recruit and retain these smart young minds, a growing number of employers are starting to sharpen their focus on both engagement and sustainability. That puts pressure on traditional companies to embrace sustainability, responsibility, open communication and other positive impact goals that inspire their employees.

Engaging through purpose

It used to be that people who wanted impactful jobs went to work in NGOs. But with the rise of B-corporations – social and environmentally driven companies – and with more focus in businesses on the triple bottom line, people can now find purpose and impact in for-profit jobs.

Millennials expect organisations to operate on a more transparent and sustainably oriented basis. Because Millennials have grown up with cause marketing, organisations are obliged to take positions on vital societal issues. It’s not enough to fix their supply chains. Large organisations that do not fully embrace sustainability at the core will find it harder to recruit talent. Embracing sustainability goals and culture is thus key to an organisation’s long term success.

"This army of authentic communicators is hyper-engaged and promotes a positive sustainability reputation with peers." 

Yet few organisations have adopted an official employee engagement policy around sustainability. Part of the reason is that engaging a majority of employees across a large company is challenging. Sustainability engagement training addresses this challenge by enabling employees to realise for themselves the meaning and value of sustainability. It allows them to align the company values with their own personal values. It unleashes purpose to their work and passion in their communication. They become engaged. And they become natural communicators.

Doing the right thing

Sustainability engagement leads to business transformation. Things feel different both inside and outside. People feel inspired and committed. They have purpose in their work and have space to cross-fertilise ideas and innovate within the framework of the strategic vision.

Every organisation has a social responsibility to practice authentic sustainability. Not just to have employees listen to public relations messages, but also to create the space for them to ask questions and engage in meaningful conversation. Engaged employees are able to listen, ask questions and advocate the sustainability roadmap to suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

Employees talk about their organisation as a shining example of 'doing the right thing’. They are proud because they have purpose. They are part of something much bigger and that feels positive. And they have plenty of evidence to support the sustainability narrative. A free information flow within organisations feeds the 24-7 constant free-flow of information on social media. Finally every employee has the capacity to engage.

Engaging with integrity

The era of greenwash is coming to an end. Transparency, social media and the free-flow of information means that what happens on the other side of the world is today’s news everywhere. The millenials are making sure of it. The days of spin are over.

What is replacing the creaking old green veneer that many organisations once used to disguise a poor environmental record is a new shiny green core. One that is honest because it is built around a meaningful sustainability strategy. How is the company playing its part to address global environmental challenges? It is around the sustainability journey that employees want to engage. And as sustainability ambassadors, employees can boost brand reputation more than any public relations campaign can manage.

It’s for communication directors to lead the call for sustainability engagement from within their own organisations. The future of corporate communication starts here.

Changing business, for good: sustainability champions

Global organisations such as Airbus and Asia Paper & Pulp have embraced sustainability engagement, with tangible results for employee engagement and stakeholder engagement.

Case study 1: Airbus

In 2012 Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, sought to engage with the leaders of Europe’s environmental non-governmental organisations on issues related to the environmental sustainability of air travel. European NGOs such as CAN Europe, Friends of the Earth and WWF, had been actively campaigning for policy action on climate change, biofuels sustainability, noise and air pollution. In my role as owner and director of Conscience Consulting, I was to kick-start the Airbus journey of sustainability engagement.

Case study 2: Asia Pulp and Paper

In 2013 Conscience Consulting worked with partners in The Transition500 Alliance to support the transition of Asia Pulp and Paper Group (APP) towards a zero deforestation commitment. APP is one of the biggest producers of pulp, paper and packaging in the world. APP undertook sustainability engagement training by gathering small groups of employees across functions to discuss and integrate the company’s zero deforestation commitment. Employees could openly share ideas on sustainability and genuinely embrace the company’s sustainability vision and roadmap.

Employee champions

With a wealth of experience of sustainability engagement, I was asked to write a book so I could share valuable insights. My book Creating Employee Champions: How to Drive Business Success Through Sustainability Engagement Training was published in 2014. The book lays out the challenges and solutions to engaging employees through purpose. Disengaged employees cost companies billions in lost productivity and lead to high turnover rates, so feeling a sense of purpose does matter. Making sustainability contribution part of the job description means employees are driven towards collaboration, community and commitment. And the organisation is better positioned to anticipate and adapt to changing market conditions. My book aims to transplant NGO DNA into business DNA, so business leaders too can inspire 'hearts and minds' engagement from employees, foster dynamic commitment to meet sustainability goals and equip their teams for genuine stakeholder engagement. This effective method transforms employees into authentic brand ambassadors, and companies into movements. The evidence is that sustainability engagement is achieved through a simple three-step method that incrementally harnesses employee energy behind the organisation’s sustainability strategy. It is a unique tool for organisations that want to make that quantum leap of integrating sustainability into the soul of a business, achieving a paradigm shift in sustainability engagement.


Main image: Thinkstock

Jo Sullivan

Jo Sullivan is a senior advisor on sustainability and strategic communication for corporate, NGO and EU Institution leaders. Jo founded Conscience Consulting in 2007 as the first activist agency in Brussels, and in 2014 co-founded the Transition500 Alliance, a global network of sustainability communication consultancies. Previously as campaigns and communications director for Friends of the Earth, Jo created the 20.20.20 campaign for climate action which was rolled out across 27 European countries. Jo runs workshops on strategy, campaigns, messaging and influence across Europe, teaches at IHECS, the Brussels Communication School and delivers webinars on her book, Creating Employee Champions: How to drive business success through Sustainability Engagement.