Engaging employees in corporate responsibility can unlock a potential wealth of innovative thinking from within a business


Engaging employees in corporate responsibility can unlock a potential wealth of innovative thinking from within a businessEconomic recessions are to business what natural disasters are to society. Both invite individuals and organisations to show their true colours.

Howard Schultz provides an illustrative example. In 2008, with coffee sales slumping, the Starbucks chief executive sent a message to 10,000 store managers in the US. He offered no pep talk; he disclosed no massive plan for job cuts. Instead, he took them to New Orleans and told them to get their hands dirty.

Schultz credits the volunteering experience with re-engaging employees with the company’s purpose and values. Starbucks is still not out of the woods. But the 54,000 volunteer hours on the streets of New Orleans helped “turn things around”, Schultz maintains.

Statistics back him up. Employees that are engaged with the mission and values of their employer are more likely to work harder and stay in their jobs longer.

Managers at almost nine out of 10 of the UK’s top 50 best workplaces believe corporate responsibility affects employees’ motivation, satisfaction and loyalty, according to research by the Great Place to Work Institute.

“People want to work for ethical companies in the same way that consumers want to buy from ethical companies,” says Darcy Willson-Rymer, managing director of Starbucks UK and Ireland.

Approaches to engaging employees in internal corporate responsibility are multiple. The first step is good communication. Everything from induction training and internal publications through to dedicated intranet sites and in-house activity days are used to raise awareness.

Too often, however, corporate responsibility is something done “to” employees, rather than “with” employees. Successful companies realise that employees need a sense of ownership. That means providing mechanisms for open dialogue and feedback.

Again, business leaders have in place a wide range of two-way communications approaches. These stretch from traditional face-to-face meetings and focus groups, to online “town hall” conferences such as IBM’s Electronic Jams.

Even so, winning over employees is not straightforward. A company’s claims to responsible business must past the sniff test. Working at the coalface, employees see first-hand whether their employer is really practising what it preaches.

“Unless employees see that companies are taking corporate responsibility seriously and that [they] are involved, then employers won’t see the benefits,” says Williams Johnson, managing director of the Great Place to Work Institute.

Active participation

Johnson argues for a third key driver in gaining employee buy-in: involvement. Evidence from active corporate volunteers shows far higher engagement levels than among non-volunteers.

“Even those who were just aware of these activities consistently rated their employer higher on some of the employee engagement measures,” says Catherine Sermon, national community impact director at the UK membership group Business in the Community.

A survey by Research International at the behest of BITC shows that corporate volunteers are 36% more likely to recommend their company to friends and family than those not involved.

Again, options for involvement are copious. A worker giving his or her time to volunteering is the most obvious, but by no means the only one. Green initiatives at work are a popular approach, as are fundraising and payroll giving.

Secondments in the non-corporate sector or structured overseas trips are emerging as another weapon in the battle to engage employees. Personal exposure to social and environmental issues at the grassroots can hardly fail to raise employee awareness and engagement.

Starbucks UK, for instance, is taking a group of high-performing staff to Rwanda to meet some of its fairtrade suppliers. The trip aims to connect “the front 10ft of the store” to the company’s wider social commitments, Willson-Rymer explains.

Full circle of engagement

Such experiences can create a full-scale loop back to the business by encouraging employees to think innovatively about their company’s corporate responsibility strategy.

“Companies that approach this in the right way are finding that they have a lot to learn from non-profits, particularly from individuals within non-profits who tend to be entrepreneurial, very passionate and very driven,” says David Williams, co-founder of the global leadership development firm Impact International.

“It is a very short step from what they are doing outside the business to what they are doing inside in terms of intrapreneurship and innovating new ideas,” he adds.

An excellent example is Journeys for Change, a non-profit group that takes socially conscious leaders to India to meet leading social entrepreneurs.

Kelly Lauber, global director of strategic planning at Nike, credits the experience with helping the company “re-focus its social investment strategy, moving from simply writing a cheque to more of a social venture capitalist approach”.

If a company is to reap the full benefits of an active engagement approach, it must be prepared to listen. Not all feedback will be welcome and not all suggestions will work. But those companies that genuinely open their doors to employee ideas will find themselves sitting on a rich source of internal innovation.

Recommendations for engaging employees in community investment

  • Identify your leaders and followers 
  • Engage the leaders for personal and team benefits
  • Use community programmes for team building
  • Communicate your activities to all staff
  • Encourage participation to be active but don’t force it
  • Bring together human resources, marketing and community affairs activities to maximise the business benefitsSource: Creating Trust: It’s Worth the Effort, whitepaper, Great Place to Work Institute UK

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