Let’s say you’re the CEO of a large organization and you want to make sure your company scores high on an upcoming environmental impact evaluation. What steps would you take? What policies would you need to create? How many people would you need to join your environmental initiative task force to hit your goals?

Want Employees to Embrace Corporate Environmental Policies? Invest in Them First.

December 21, 2021 • By Keith Giles

Let’s say you’re the CEO of a large organization and you want to make sure your company scores high on an upcoming environmental impact evaluation. What steps would you take? What policies would you need to create? How many people would you need to join your environmental initiative task force to hit your goals? 

A recent study reveals that although a traditional approach focusing on environmental policies and practices is a necessary step, it is not enough. In fact, what you might need to do is something so counterintuitive and unexpected, that most corporate executives totally miss it. 

At least that’s what a recent study conducted by Florencio F. Portocarrero, a Ph.D. candidate at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, Jone L. Pearce, distinguished professor emerita of organization and management at the Merage School and Anne-Laure Winkler, assistant professor at the Zinklin School of Business, Baruch College, CUNY concludes. Their article—Broadening our Understanding of Human Resource Management for Improved Environmental Performancesuggests that a company’s environmental impact success rates are contingent upon the health of that organization’s corporate culture.  

Do what I do, not what I say 

As Portocarrero explains, this question of what makes or breaks a company’s impact on the environment is something he’s wondered about for a very long time. “This was actually one of the first projects I started when I began my Ph.D. journey a little over six years ago,” he says. “I have always been intrigued by the impact organizations have on the environment, and I have always perceived organizations as being key to addressing impact and alleviating barriers and eventually improving environmental conditions in our world.” 

As a micro-organizational scholar, Portocarrero is interested in how individuals within organizations influence company performance. His graduate work has focused on the role of individuals in shaping their institution’s environmental impacts.  

Pearce shares Portocarrero’s interest in the practical side of company performance. “Unlike other academics who might focus on economic conditions, or strategy in the abstract, we are interested in what people actually do,” she says. 

Finding the root of environmental success 

They began their research by looking for empirical methods for answering these sorts of questions. “Thankfully, Anne-Laure and I gained access to a database of aspiring B Corps,” says Portocarrero. B Corporations, or B Corps for short, are businesses that have been independently assessed for their commitment to social and environmental performance, among other things.  

With access to this data set, they began exploring how organizations can have a meaningful effect on the environment. “The B Corporations angle is one of the things that makes our research so interesting,” says Pearce. “The organizations we looked at have all had to go through a rigorous process of evaluation.  We’re sampling companies that want to be designated as environmentally successful corporations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t endure the bureaucratic processes necessary to become certified. What this means for us, as researchers, is that the data we have is all based on facts, not on opinions or posturing.” 

To discover what people actually do, they focused on human resource management practices. “We wanted to look at how they rewarded the positive behaviors, how they monitored employee actions and how the things they did affected the company’s environmental impact,” says Pearce.  

Nurtured employees are enthusiastic employees 

The team was surprised to discover that programs with no apparent relationship to environmental considerations have a strong correlation with a company’s environmental impact. Contributions to employee continuing education programs, healthcare packages, corporate volunteer programs and parental leave policies all make a big difference. 

Put another way, although an isolated rewards system focused on environmental goals can be helpful, a more holistic employee wellness program is more impactful. As Portocarrero explains, “If I perceive that I am valued as an employee, then I am going to feel more invested in what the organization cares about as well, and I will be more likely to help the company achieve its environmental goals.”  

Don’t stop at posters in the lunchroom 

In reflecting on these results, Portocarrero draws on his prior experience as a corporate social responsibility manager.  “What I experienced was that environmental initiatives were seldom embraced throughout the entire organization. Companies usually assume that they are doing enough because they have a Chief Sustainability Officer or a team in charge of the company’s environmental initiatives. But the results we’ve found show that this is not enough. You have to make sure managers throughout the organization are held accountable for environmental impact.” 

If employees sense that the executive team isn’t seriously concerned with the environment, they won’t take it very seriously either. 

“Employees tend to take pride in their company when they see how well the organization treats them,” says Portocarrero, “and if that’s their experience they are usually more exuberant when it comes to helping the company reach their environmental impact goals.” 

“What works is not a program that puts up posters in the break room twice a year,” says Pearce. “It’s also not a program that squeezes the managers either. It’s really about how the entire organization treats their employees from the ground up.”