Power to your people

2 Dec 2020

In this latest edition of the Sustainability Series Fflur Sheppard, Senior Associate explores the power of people in ESG.

People can be your biggest asset, or your biggest cynics, when it comes to your ESG work. They can provide the best ideas for your efforts.


Engaging colleagues in ESG

More often than not, companies approach ESG with a financial audience primarily in mind. Shareholders, target investors, brokers – we all know that they’re increasingly concerned about purpose alongside profit, and it’s only right that ESG strategies and communications reflect their growing interest.

But while a company’s approach to ESG can exist on paper, it can only live in the actions of its colleagues.

Colleagues can be your biggest asset, or your biggest cynics, when it comes to your ESG work. When they believe in the positive impact your company can make, they can be the source of the best ideas and the best advocates for your efforts. By the same measure, they know where the bodies are buried, many have often been around long enough to see different corporate visions, and they will see straight through any greenwashing.

It’s vital, then, that they are a key stakeholder group. Much more than an audience for any eventual messaging, they should have a role as architects of your ESG strategy and authors of your ESG story.  While senior leadership must be accountable for an ambitious virtuous circle of target-setting and reporting, enlightened management will see that it’s only by empowering colleagues that they can make a real difference.

Engaging colleagues in good times and in bad

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when times are tough. How do you engage colleagues, and make the most of them, at a time when companies and wider sectors are struggling?  Just this Autumn we’ve seen Sainsbury’s, John Lewis Partnership and Lloyds Banking Group all announce cuts. It’s much harder to get colleagues behind ESG when they’re worried about their jobs, hurt on behalf of ex-colleagues, and likely to be picking up extra work due to restructures.

The key, in good times as well as bad, is to find the right balance between a group-wide approach that has material impact, and devolved authority to apply that approach in the ways that mean most on the ground.

Too much control from the centre means people don’t get behind the vision and purpose, and they lose meaning; too much freedom to be ad hoc on a market, local or individual level, and you lose impact. Get the balance right, and it will be easier, even when times are tough, for colleagues to both create and embrace your ESG strategy.

While not every colleague can be involved in strategy development, everyone can be engaged on how they can make a difference.

Three straightforward ways to help colleagues create and embrace ESG strategy

1. Involve them in strategy development

Nobody knows your business better than the people who work in it.  Whether they’re serving customers or servicing clients, arranging logistics or managing accounts, they will know best what your company means to its stakeholders, what’s material, and what meaningful action looks like.  Following some explanation on how ESG differs from its CSR ancestor, and with support from ESG experts, representatives from key departments will be able to help develop a sensible strategy that has stretching targets.  A sense of ownership from the beginning will pay dividends when it comes to implementation.

2. Train them in meaningful implementation

While not every colleague can be involved in strategy development, everyone can be engaged on how they can make a difference.

At a very basic level, they need to understand both what they need to do, and what they can do.  Beyond that, a successful colleague engagement campaign could lead to some of a company’s best ESG achievements.  Not long after Dave Lewis’s arrival at Tesco, hundreds of store-based Community Champions were trained on how to deliver a newly adopted social strategy, and channeling their passion into a few focussed areas led to greater local media coverage and stronger community engagement scores across the board.

3. Communicate often and celebrate their success

To keep colleagues involved, it’s important that nothing is seen as a “one-off.”  Publishing a sustainability report and leaving it at that clearly isn’t enough.  Instead, by internally updating on progress – with honest assessments and no greenwashing – colleagues can both celebrate their own success and see where work needs to be stepped up. Sharing case studies of colleague-led initiatives not only helps inspire others within the company, but can be a useful recruitment tool.

In fact, ESG is increasingly important for an organisation’s employer brand. It’s not just about an alignment of candidates’ and companies’ values – some businesses can find themselves struggling to recruit because of prospective colleagues’ concern about the sustainability of the business, per se. While a solid ESG comms strategy won’t single-handedly attract or retain talent, it will do a lot of good.


Feature PHOTO Credit to: DILBERT © Scott Adams

How DRD can help

We help our clients understand and articulate their impact in the world, analyse their ESG risks and opportunities, engage their stakeholders, develop strategy and tell their ESG stories. DRD has a dedicated ESG team with deep experience advising clients on ESG issues in both in senior in-house and advisory roles. For a conversation about how DRD might be able to assist please contact sustainability@drdpartnership.com.