GreenBiz Group Feature

Sustainability-engaged employees more satisfied, study shows

by Liz Maw on Thursday, July 5, 2012 in Features

Jeslin Jacob was just a few years out of business school when she encountered a sustainability challenge she felt passionate about.

Troubled by the fiberglass waste her company, a roofing manufacturer, was sending to the landfill, she approached higher-ups about seeking alternative solutions. Despite their tepid response, it was important enough to her that she took it upon herself to develop a market for the fiberglass dust, not only diverting waste from the landfill but also saving her company thousands of dollars annually. The company has since expanded her fiberglass recycling program to other plants.

“The recycling project got integrated into the regular manufacturing process very quickly, so that it barely seems like a special project now,” she said. “I feel like I’ve left an invisible green signature on the products we make. And the more products we sell, the greater the impact of the project. Now that is a great incentive for me to grow business and that makes every day at work satisfying.”

Jacobs is just one example of the employee loyalty and dedication that can be inspired by companies that take sustainability efforts seriously — even if those workers have to overcome institutional hurdles to make their voices heard.

Employees who feel they can make an impact on social and environmental issues while on the job are twice as satisfied with work as those who don’t, according to a new study released by Net Impact, a nonprofit membership group aimed at helping business-school graduates make a social and environmental impact. The nationwide study conducted by Rutgers University and funded by The John and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation shows 49 percent of workers who have impact opportunities on the job report high satisfaction levels, compared with 24 percent of those who don’t.

We see these satisfaction levels reinforced when digging into the ways people feel connected to impact through their jobs. For example, 45 percent of employees who say they worked directly on a product or service that makes a positive social impact are very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 29 percent of those who don’t. The research finds similar numbers for people who provide input on sustainability or corporate responsibility issues at work, or volunteer alongside their co-workers.

One such employee is Jasdeep Garcha, a Program Manager at Microsoft who is two years out of Duke University and co-leads Net Impact’s first corporate chapter, a group of 250 Microsoft employees who want to engage on social and environmental issues through their company. They’ve started a speaker series to provide forums for employees to hear about and discuss different Microsoft citizenship initiatives.

“It’s a way we’ve been trying to internalize our commitment to citizenship,” said Garcha, who was active with social impact and entrepreneurship work at college. “I’m passionate about this stuff,” he added. “I met my technology passion with my day job. The Net Impact chapter allowed me to satiate the other part of who I am.”

The road is rougher for workers like Jacob. Imagine what someone like her might have achieved had she been given the tools and time right out of the gate. The reality, though, is that employers often struggle to provide these opportunities. At Net Impact, we have the privilege to work with partners who are innovating around employee engagement. Here are a few tips from friends in the field:

  • Infiltrate across the company: Rick Martella, VP of Corporate Affairs at Aramark, had a great idea a few years ago to hire sustainability-minded students for paid internships and put them to work at client locations. Students work with Rick’s team and other department leads to complete projects on energy efficiency, waste management, and other sustainability issues. Explains Rick, “we recognize the changing workforce and are looking at ways to better engage and design around our shared interests. Social and environmental impact are issues that the emerging generation of employees want to be connected to, and we can tap into their enthusiasm to help design and execute client solutions in these areas. The students also help us build awareness and look at the evolving relationship that we have with tomorrow’s business leaders.” The interns are one way Rick is starting to bring sustainability ideas and enthusiasm to other departments in his company.
  • Build the pipeline: When your organization brings in a new employee, it’s an opportunity to add to the sustainability team, no matter where they sit. And the opportunity is massive: our research says 65 percent of students expect their future job will enable them to make a positive social and environmental impact. Providing campus recruiters with materials to tell your sustainability story is a great way to help them field questions. Dave Stangis has done an outstanding job at this as Campbell’s vice president of CSR. He explained recently in the MIT Sloan Management Review: “People want to come work here; we have to beat them off with a stick, because we’re much more visible in [the sustainability] space … We’re attracting a different caliber of candidate and a different level of thinking… and ultimately that makes Campbell more competitive”.
  • Show them the money: Traditional incentives like cash get attention, too. Alcoa and Intel tie sustainability performance to employee compensation — for everyone, not just executives. As Suzanne Fallender, Intel’s director of CSR strategy and communications, explained: “We had a variable compensation plan called the Employee Bonus plan, essentially a profit-sharing plan. It has three main components: absolute financial performance, relative financial performance and operational goals. It’s in that operational goals component where we integrated the sustainability metrics.”

Net Impact believes the future workforce looks different. We envision a world where everyone, no matter their role or function, can bring their values and world-changing passion to the workforce. The data shows this is the smart thing to do. Now, it’s up to all of us to get it done.

Originally published on GreenBiz Group