The Employee Imperative of ESG

By Alicia Aleksandrowicz

Companies must up the ante on societal and environmental action — or risk losing employees

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared at COP27 that “we must have zero tolerance for net zero greenwashing” and lawmakers around the world are responding to this call. Proposed laws from the EU targeting misleading ‘green claims’ and the enhanced climate disclosure rules proposed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), expected to come into effect in the U.S. this year, are just two examples of regulatory changes currently underway.

In the meantime, global companies are moving quickly to adopt frameworks, get ahead of disclosure requirements and re-evaluate how they talk about their sustainability efforts. And although it may be regulatory bodies leading the anti-greenwashing charge, there is real evidence to suggest that organizations are overlooking an important internal watchdog — their own employees.

Powell Tate, in partnership with Weber Shandwick and KRC Research, recently conducted a pulse poll looking into shifting attitudes in the workplace. Findings reveal that while a significant majority of U.S. employees (85%) believe companies should create societal value and uphold employee and community values, fewer than 1 in 3 gave their own employer an excellent rating in any one of these areas and only 59 percent of employees are confident that their employers are taking the right steps.

Not listening to the expectations and concerns of employees on societal and environmental action can lead to real consequences. Paul Polman, the Dutch business and climate leader, recently released the Net Positive Employee Barometer examining how companies’ values and impact on the world are transforming their employee appeal. The results reinforce findings by Weber Shandwick that employees see an “ambition gap” in how their employers are taking these issues on, with nearly two thirds saying efforts by business do not go far enough.

But employees aren’t just saying they’re unhappy with the level of action, they’re also expressing that dissatisfaction in other ways — sometimes going so far as to blow the whistle on their employer. In a movement dubbed by Polman as ‘Conscious Quitting,’ as many as a third of workers admit to having resigned because their company’s values didn’t align with their own and nearly half of employees surveyed stated they would consider quitting for the same reason.

Implications for companies and leaders

What does all this mean for organizations? Here are some quick actions employers can take:

  • Keep a pulse on expectations: Invest in listening to understand employee perspectives. That means checking in on levels of employee satisfaction, sentiment and concerns to avoid complacency and identify where there may be a disconnect with employee expectations and company actions — to build solutions together.
  • Validate employee voices: Demonstrate meaningfully that views are being heard, by acknowledging feedback at the highest levels of an organization. Be transparent and authentic by not just listening but showing willingness to adopt suggestions or pivot an approach based on employee input.
  • Engage in action: Put employees at the heart of efforts, with opportunities to both direct the focus of companies’ efforts and get directly involved in delivering on its societal and environmental commitments. For example, through internal engagement programs or supporting volunteering opportunities. When engaged meaningfully, employees can be an organization’s number one advocate.

This evolution of employee expectations and engagement brings home the fact that employees are, of course, people first. And although the employer/employee relationship is distinct in nature, acting with transparency, respect and a willingness to engage in a two-way dialogue — from both parties — is essential to its success.

Alicia Aleksandrowicz


Vice President, Strategic Planning, Weber Shandwick Toronto

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