Care + action

Workers want companies that care about ESG—here's how to leverage their passion

How upskilling and values can help address employee demands for ESG action
Workers want companies that care about ESG—here's how to leverage their passion
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The role of values and purpose in attracting and retaining talent has become increasingly important when considering business priorities. With corporations, both big and small, articulating some form of ESG goals, there is an opportunity to tap into the passion employees have for the subject and create real movement in achieving these goals alongside other business objectives. According to a recent IBM study, 70% of employees find sustainability programs make employers more appealing, and 80% want to help their company reach climate or ESG goals.

Despite the increased focus on ESG and its importance to employees, progress has been slow, leading to criticism of greenwashing. Still, other companies get bogged down by the skills a workforce may lack that are necessary to fulfilling sustainability goals. So how can leaders tap into the desire employees express for impact on ESG goals to unleash progress towards not just these goals but also broader performance measures?

Integrate values into everyone’s role and how business gets done

Corporate values are too often nothing more than posters on the wall and headlines in annual reports. In an environment where employees are already struggling against external forces like financial anxiety, geopolitical conflict, extreme climate events, inequality, and steep rises in inflation, values that resonate and reflect in the work employees are performing has become crucial. Multiple studies have shown that when employees connect with the purpose behind their work, they are far less likely to experience burnout or feel overwhelmed. A global survey of GenZ and Millennials found that two in five respondents have rejected a job or assignment because it did not align with their values.

With so many employees expressing their desire to help advance the company’s ESG goals, an opportunity ripe for engagement has become available to leaders hoping to encourage a stronger connection to purpose and values. Employee interests can be identified and leveraged during performance reviews, conversations around passion points and specialties, employee engagement surveys, or roundtable discussions about opportunities to be more sustainable as an organization. By giving employees the time and permission they need to contribute towards sustainability goals, leaders can simultaneously make faster progress on said goals and increase the overall engagement of their workforce. The study mentioned above also found that workers satisfied with their company’s social impact are more likely to want to stay with their employer for more than five years. Thus, by creating opportunities for employees to buy into their organization’s social impact, leaders can benefit from a positive effect on performance, engagement, and retention.

Furthermore, employees closest to the business’s day-to-day operations are well-positioned to lead programs as they understand the ethos of the organization and its people. Finally, for workers eager to amplify their company’s impact, establishing accessible avenues to share ideas or identify areas of opportunity will help tap into their demands and desires and the opportunities for growth and development employees seek.

Upskilling to tap into employees’ desire to engage

If workers have displayed an overwhelming desire to impact their organization’s ESG goals, where is the disconnect between goal setting and fulfillment? A portion of the question lies in whose job it is to make progress on goals for sustainability. Still, another segment of the problem can be found in the lack of opportunities available to grow and develop the necessary skills. Making progress on ESG often requires influencing others across the organization, creating support and buy-in for new ways of doing things, and creating urgency for activities that may not have immediate benefits—skills that are not always intuitive.

According to a recent study, the focus of HR professionals has shifted from talent acquisition to employee engagement and learning and development (L&D). Turning inwards to empower and educate employees via focused L&D programs that address the skills described above or through creating unique roles that reflect the capabilities of eager individuals who are already on board can ultimately shorten the time needed to launch new initiatives. When considering that a significant hurdle plaguing organizational success is often insufficient investment in sustainability training, moments for skill growth like L&D programs, seminars, or hands-on opportunities both engage workers and expand their capabilities.

Setting more inclusive goals with your workforce

Most sustainability targets are in the long-term and don’t set milestones, making progress hard to see. This lack of clarity can often alienate employees who expect fast results, which reflect the substantial efforts they have put in—establishing short-term targets or incremental goals that reflect a portion of an overarching goal for sustainability. For example, decreasing carbon impact by just a few percentage points or taking the first step towards changing business operations to more sustainable alternatives—can empower employees closest to the cause to set and measure the impact they seek.

By including the workforce in the goal-setting process, leaders can leverage the knowledge of the entire employee base and create joint ownership of progress. Defining realistic goals and benchmarks, creating an established process for who is responsible for reporting and tracking the efforts, and communicating clear expectations will form a clear and shared understanding of the efforts employees have committed to.

In today’s environment, organizations that can connect corporate values to the goals for sustainability their employees care about will see the best results in goal fulfillment. When an organization can pursue expanded capabilities and create opportunities for employees to have a direct impact in these areas—as well as include those employees in the initial establishment of goals and objectives – they will be able to tap into the depth of passion for sustainable practices, leading to faster progress and higher retention.

Gaurav Gupta is a director at Kotter, Inc. with global business experience translating strategy into successful implementation for clients in diverse industries. He is the co-author of the book, Change, detailing how leaders can leverage challenges and opportunities to make sustainable workplace changes in a rapidly accelerating world.