Companies can have the best corporate responsibility strategies on paper, but without communicating them to employees, effectiveness is severely hamstrung


Companies can have the best corporate responsibility strategies on paper, but without communicating them to employees, effectiveness is severely hamstrungThis October, tens of thousands of individuals will be meeting to discuss community service. Technology company IBM will host the three-day event and IBM employees will make up most of the audience. But also in attendance will be non-profit groups and representatives of government and from other walks of life.

But you don’t have to go to IBM’s headquarters in Armonk, New York, however. IBM’s “global electronic town hall meeting” is happening online. “Basically it’s like an open dialogue to provide feedback or thoughts on new ideas,” explains IBM’s Lisa Lanspery.

The so-called Electronic Jam is one of a series of different mechanisms the company has devised to involve its employees in its corporate responsibility commitments. The list also features an intranet site highlighting volunteer opportunities for IBMers around the world.

And the approach appears to be working. Over the past five years, the company’s 150,000 active volunteers have given more than one million hours in voluntary service.

Likewise, IBM has found that its overseas skills-based volunteer scheme is heavily oversubscribed. To narrow the numbers, only high performers are invited to apply for the three-week corporate service corps programme. Even so, the 800 places on offer since the programme started three years ago could have been filled 20 times over.

Getting the word out

Businesses today are waking up to the importance of engaging their employees. Failure to do so carries a quantifiable financial cost. Disengaged workers cost US companies an estimated $343bn per year in lost productivity, research group Gallup calculates (see box).

Engaging employees in corporate responsibility programmes is seen as particularly crucial. On the one hand, it increases morale, retention and recruitment rates – the benefits of having engaged employees. On the other, it breathes life into companies’ principles and values.

To achieve such employee engagement, companies have a suite of communication tools and approaches at their disposal. These break into two basic categories: remote techniques, such as employee surveys, company newsletters and annual sustainability reports; and face-to-face techniques, such as team meetings and focus groups.

A recent study by the Charities Aid Foundation* points to employee surveys as the most popular single approach. As well as being good for engaging a large population, surveys provide a good overview of employees’ preferences and values.

Companies cannot rely on any single communications tool, however. Surveys, for instance, should only be deployed periodically, the Christian Aid report advises. A multi-strand approach to communications is required. (See case study: Admiral Group.)

One company that understands this is Novo Nordisk. The Denmark-based pharmaceutical giant communicates its award-winning community involvement programme through internal print publications as well as a dedicated website on its intranet.

Raise awareness

Novo Nordisk also holds awareness-raising events on World Diabetes Day, as diabetes is one of the focus issues of its TakeAction volunteering programme. The idea of linking activities to a notable date is a popular one. Many companies, for example, tie in environmental messaging and activities to the United Nations’ Earth Day.

Building a network of interested employees to advocate internally is another popular means of engaging employees. Novo boasts a network of 850 employee champions across the company. “We provide them with news about the programme and information about activities coming up, and then help spread the message about opportunities locally,” says Pia Bone, project manager at Novo Nordisk.

In addition, the company puts its online video file-sharing system to use. Employee volunteers are encouraged to film their activities and post them on the company’s Novo Tube site.

“The programme resides in the corporate branding department, which gives us great access into internal communications channels,” Bone says.

As well as being high profile and multi-stranded, communications must be straightforward and ongoing. Most corporate codes of conduct, for example, are now integrated into companies’ training for new entrants.

Getting stuck in

But communication should not be mistaken for engagement, however. For employees to become fully engaged, they need to be involved in the company’s policies and not just told about them.

That means integrating employees into early discussions about a company’s strategy on corporate responsibility, says Martin Clarke, director of general management programmes at Cranfield school of management and a specialist in employee engagement. All too often, management looks for employee feedback “once the horse has bolted”.

Clarke explains: “Sustainability is a pretty nebulous concept at the moment. Talking to employees and allowing them to structure it in ways that are meaningful for them allows them to create some clarity about what it means for themselves rather than imposing it.”

Most experts on employee engagement agree that involving people in practical ways on issues that interest them is the bedrock of successful engagement. As far as corporate responsibility is concerned, encouraging employees to take individual steps to improve their environmental impact is a case in point.

Under Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, for instance, all employees at the UK retailer are required to state specific steps they will take to help meet the company’s overall sustainability targets.

At BT, employees are provided with a carbon emissions calculator to assist them in identifying their individual carbon footprint. Employees with the most improved scores receive public recognition via a league table published on the company’s intranet.

When it comes to direct involvement, few measures are more powerful than employee volunteering. Why? Because it connects employees at an emotional as well as a rational level with the company’s values, says Michael Tuffrey, coordinator of the business-backed community investment benchmarking group LBG.

“Those that are actively involved in volunteering activities see that the company cares about its place in society and is trying to link that back to its broader social and environmental goals,” he says.

Be interesting

To be successful, volunteering opportunities must chime with employees’ interests. If not, take-up will be low, warns Maxine Sharman, community manager at UK retailer the Midcounties Co-operative.

“You can run a community challenge activity in a school just three miles away, but if it’s not their children’s school, employees won’t feel as involved,” she says.

To ensure community investment projects resonate with participants, the Midcounties Co-operative employs three full-time community coordinators to broker relevant activities. The company enjoys a 34% participation rate, double what is considered “good” for company volunteer programmes.

To widen volunteering opportunities, some companies use external broker agencies. Cares, for instance, a brokerage service run by membership group Business in the Community, operates in 35 cities across the UK. Volunteer specialist CSV offers a similar service.

Providing facilities for payroll giving and other voluntary contributions occupies a similar place in the engagement challenge as community involvement.

PepsiCo has one of the most creative examples of this kind. Through its new Refresh Everything programme, the drinks company invites employees and the public to vote online for cash gifts to specific project ideas.

The Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), meanwhile, which is the UK’s biggest provider of payroll giving services, has just launched a software tool enabling employees to individually manage their giving. The web-based application gives employees flexibility on who they give to, when and how much.

“It’s a new era of giving experience for employees … The idea is to make it easier and bring the experience right to the desktop of the employee,” says Justin Bliss, head of company relations at CAF.

Increasingly, companies are coordinating volunteering and giving with their corporate charitable partners. Presuming that these organisations have been selected strategically, the effect is to engage employee participants with companies’ broader social and environmental priorities.

A good example is HSBC. The UK-based bank provides skills-based volunteering opportunities with environmental charities involved in its flagship Climate Partnership programme.

More than seven in 10 of HSBC employee participants in the programme consequently have an action plan in place for a climate change project, according to independent research.

“Employees can return to their normal job functions with new knowledge and experiences that relate directly to the company’s sustainability objectives,” says David Hillyard, director of programme development at EarthWatch.

For employees, knowing about their company’s corporate responsibility policies and programmes is key. Only with personal involvement, however, will they begin living these out with both heart and mind.

*Getting Engaged: the role of stakeholders in community investment, Charities Aid Foundation

Case study: Admiral Group – winning trust through open communication

Admiral Group consistently registers in employee-based surveys as one of the most trusted UK companies. The Wales-based insurance company represents one of only a handful of companies to be consistently included in the Sunday Times best companies to work for awards, as well as the Financial Times European trust champions survey.

The company’s latest staff survey shows that 96% of its 3,000 employees are “proud” to be associated with the company. A similar proportion would recommend others to work there.

The same survey gives several insights into why trust levels are so high at Admiral. The vast majority of employees have a clear understanding of the company’s goals (92%), believe that employee opinions are listened to by management (87%,) and feel they are individually respected by their line manager (94%).

At the heart of Admiral’s management philosophy is transparency and openness, according to Justin Beddows, communication manager at Admiral.

“There is a high level of trust because people appreciate that the company is not trying to hide things from them and will always give an answer if they want it,” Beddows says.

The company’s “multi-strand” approach to communications incorporates everything from face-to-face meetings and staff briefings to information via the company intranet or email. Admiral’s suite of innovative engagement strategies includes regular “friendly forums”. These small-groups sessions give individuals from across different departments the opportunity to meet with managers for an hour in an atmosphere of open dialogue.

In a similar vein, the company runs “meet the manager” sessions as a means of introducing support managers from Admiral’s Cardiff office to employees at its other sites in Newport and Swansea.

In terms of the business’s overall direction, the internal communications team supplies a regular update to convey important information across the company. Admiral also holds a general off-site staff meeting for all employees every year.

Feedback opportunities abound as well. The company’s annual survey is complemented by a monthly snapshot survey at a departmental level.

“All the information from surveys is fed back to staff in various ways because we don’t want them to think that nothing comes of what they say,” Beddows says.

In addition, employees can post questions via a business exchange section on the company’s intranet. They also get the chance to grill senior management through regular online chats with Admiral’s top executives.

One of the company’s most successful steps to gain employee buy-in and trust is the bi-annual share scheme. Twice a year, employees are given £1,500 worth of free shares. These are payable after three years.

“Because we are all shareholders in the company, it’s in our interest that the company is doing well. It gives everyone a sense of ownership in the company,” Beddows concludes.

Employee engagement: the cost benefits

  • Engaged employees generate 43% more revenue. (Hay Group) 
  • Disengaged workers costs the UK £44bn a year (IES) and the US between $270bn and $343bn (Gallup) in lost productivity.
  • Engaged employees have 2.7 sick days per year, rather than the 6.2 disengaged employees take. (Gallup)
  • Engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave. (Corporate Leadership Council)
  • 67% of engaged employees advocate their organisations, compared to only 3% of disengaged employees. (Gallup)
  • 9 out of 10 of key barriers to successful change are people related. (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
  • 59% of engaged employees say “work brings out their most creative ideas”, compared to only 3% of disengaged employees. (Gallup)

Source: Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, 2009

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