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Employee Engagement: It’s All About People

29 January 2014 at 9:16 am
Staff Reporter
Unilever Australia and New Zealand representative Emma Peacock spoke to Pro Bono Australia News about the findings of a white paper on engaging employees in sustainability.

Staff Reporter | 29 January 2014 at 9:16 am


Employee Engagement: It’s All About People
29 January 2014 at 9:16 am

It’s all about people.

That was the message in the recently released white paper Workforce for Good – Employee Engagement in Sustainability and CSR, which outlined the results of consultations with 17 sustainability and CSR leaders in large corporations in the US, with employee numbers from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands.  

More than ever it is apparent that employees bridge the gap between the company’s sustainability goals and the achievement of those goals.

In 2010, Unilever launched their Sustainable Living Plan. By 2020 the organisation aims to help one billion people improve their health and wellbeing, halve the environmental impact of its products and and source 100 per cent of raw materials sustainably.

The organisation has over 1700 employees across Australia and New Zealand and a comprehensive brand portfolio including Lipton, Rexona, Streets and Continental.

Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Unilever Australia and New Zealand representative Emma Peacock to contextualise the white paper’s key recommendations and share some strategies proving most useful on the ground.

Peacock was emphatic: Unilever cannot achieve its ambitions without employees playing a key part, both to ensure growth sustainably as a business and to drive its values and culture internally.

1…Make It Personal

The paper calls for businesses to connect with employees’ personal values, passions and interests and recommends defining sustainability broadly to allow for wider appeal.

Peacock says “making it personal” cuts through even where employees tend be inundated with information about the business every day.

“Sustainability is a word that can be a bit boring in people’s minds,” she says. “We try and surprise and delight our employees – I think a bit of fun is really important.”

Peacock says strategy should address a way to appeal to people in a variety of areas, from “gung ho recyclers” to those preferring community involvement.

Unilever’s sustainability focus areas change annually, allowing the issue to be approached in different ways.  

An environmental focus year prompted the company to hold a Smarter Greener Living boot camp, a fun outdoor event where employees participated in workshops around environmental issues – including a dry shampoo salon, food waste reduction and water saving activities.

A social focus year saw a partnership with the Butterfly Foundation and the holding of a “Dove Day,” based on Unilever’s Dove brand’s message of real beauty.

Other programs appeal to employees’ competitive streak – like the organisation’s floor by floor office recycling competition.

2…Give Opportunities for Employee Innovation & Leadership

According to the paper, fostering employee innovation and employee leadership will ensure sustainability programs thrive.  

The ambitious Sustainable Living Plan was the catalyst for an innovative and proactive way of engaging their staff.

“We knew we needed to land in Australia and New Zealand in a unique way,” Peacock says.

“We gave everyone the job title, Head of Sustainability…everyone got a business card.”

“It was quite a symbolic gesture…it was empowering for people, the idea that you can make some changes in your role. Everybody has the ability to act and play a role.”

“People are often engaged but don’t know where to start in their job.”

3…Measure & Track

Attention and interest among employees rises as sustainability/CSR practices are measured and tracked. Frame employee engagement as a key performance measure outside the scope of regular work to drive results.

Unilever uses an annual all-employee survey to assess the proliferation of its engagement programs, and also follows up individual campaigns with questionnaires.

“It helps you to know if what you’re doing is effective.”

Tracking, she says, also emphasises whether or not employees took action following a particular program or campaign, whether at work or in their home life.

“It’s realising that what people do at home affects our business,” she says.

4…Incorporate Sustainability into Business Process

Sustainability is seen in the business’ daily operations; in the products and services they offer; in employees’ evaluation metrics; and when it is linked to profitability, performance, and innovation of the company. It is central to the business and becomes the lens through which business is done.

Peacock says Unilever’s integration of sustainability into its core business underpins its employee engagement strategy. Employees are wholly ingratiated and informed on sustainability through their employment.

“It’s part of our everyday terminology…it’s knowing its part of what we’re all doing every day,” Peacock says.  

Integration into core business has proven particularly useful in engaging employees who are initially apathetic, she says.

“In every organisation you’re going to have a real scale of interest. You’ve got to be realistic about that…linking sustainability right into our business strategy as an enabler of growth – I think that converts some people.”

Sitting down with an employee and presenting a case study about its benefits to business can reap rewards, she adds.

Unilever has in past sought assistance from agencies to develop engagement programs tailored to their values and culture.

External expertise, Peacock says, “helps you cut through your own jargon and clutter.”

She endorses five additional recommendations from the white paper:

5…Get Buy-in from the Top

Unilever’s senior management act as champions of sustainability as a core business principles. Recently COO Harish Manwani presented a rousing TED talk about going beyond profits, while Unilever CEO Paul Polman is a member of Richard Branson’s B Team, advocating for sustainable business.

6…Manage Engagement

Regular feedback and open communication enables managers to engage with their people. The ‘Head of Sustainability’ program saw consultations with staff over what they could do in their job to advance sustainability.

7….Align Sustainability with Corporate Culture

The organisation embeds sustainability into culture by compulsorily incorporating sustainability principles into the working life of every employee.

8…Use Multiple Channels of Communication

Sustainability initiatives are afforded the same degree of sophisticated and targeted communication strategy as any other corporate program.  The communication is strategic in nature – for example, emphasising fun or leadership as appropriate.

9…Recognise / Celebrate

Unilever provides incentive for high-performing employees – from prizes for recycling champions to trips overseas to meet global management.

Read the full white paper here.


Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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