Researcher says corporate sustainability helps boost employee pride

Authenticity stressed in era of criticism of Alberta’s oil and gas industry

During a time of “unfair demonizing” of Alberta’s oilpatch by critics, it is vital for companies to manage and communicate their sustainability practices to their employees, said an expert.

“I don’t encourage anybody to do anything I suggest if it’s not authentic,” said Dr. David Jones, PhD, who is the John L. Beckley Professor of Management at the Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont. “If it’s greenwashing, you’re far more likely to cause harm and damage, than any good.”

As someone who has worked with U.S. companies ranging from Keurig-Dr. Pepper to Seventh Generation, Jones is a leading expert in an emerging area of research on how workers respond to socially and environmentally sustainable business practices.

EMPLOYEES ‘WANT TO FEEL PROUD’

He was the featured speaker at the recent Enbridge Research in Action Seminar hosted by the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. It was moderated by Dr. Terry Ross, PhD, director of Strategic Centre Initiatives at Haskayne.

“I don’t profess to be an expert in oil and gas,” Jones told an audience of about 160 people at the Westin Hotel in Calgary. He instead described himself as an expert in the psychology behind why job seekers and employees respond positively to companies with strong sustainability practices.

But even for someone such as himself, there is much for Alberta’s oil and gas industry to be proud of, he said. “We know that when energy is produced in most other places in the world, they don’t even come close to the same kinds of standards of labour, ethics, and sustainability practices,” he said.

One of the things that “matter a lot to employees in any context is that they don’t want to be embarrassed about where they work,” said Jones during an interview.

“Many employees want to feel proud, as where they work is an expression of who they are as people. The challenge is this constant barrage of criticism and bad press about how dirty the oilsands are and so on. That makes it hard to bring your best self to work every day.”

After attending high school in Red Deer, Alta., Jones received a PhD in psychology from the University of Calgary in 2004. He was the academic director from 2015 to 2019 of Grossman’s Sustainable Innovation MBA program, which was named the best green MBA program in the U.S. by the Princeton Review in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

RESEARCHER SEES MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Jones told the audience there is much to be gained for companies who use an understanding of what motivates employees in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability – and the first step is to fully communicate about the existence of such initiatives to employees.

“People can’t respond positively to what they don’t know,” he said, adding that “what I see over and over in the data is missed opportunity ... large proportions, and usually the majority, of employees in most companies have no idea that these programs even exist, and that includes employees of companies that are celebrated for being leaders in this space.”

Research has shown there are three broad principles about why employees respond positively to CSR and sustainability practices, he said. Taking part in a sustainability initiative can be for what Jones called “self-protective” considerations, or “what’s in it for me,” such as helping build up a resume or impressing upper management.

For other employees, “care-based” considerations are also quite important, he said. These are moral and ethical reasons, with sustainability being seen as the company doing the right thing in a way that reassures workers that their employer’s values match their own values, said Jones.

A third type includes relational-status considerations that relate to how employees tend to incorporate who they work for as part of how they define themselves as people, he said. “Sustainability and community-involvement practices are things that some employees can’t wait to tell people about as a means of basking in reflected glory,” he said.

But just as there is no one reason why employees are attracted to sustainability initiatives, there is no one answer for businesses about what such practices entail, said Jones during the interview. “The important questions are about how we can develop our society, and set up the regulatory and legal frameworks to support financially-healthy businesses that contribute to societal well-being through the use of our enormous natural resources without despoiling them and exhausting them in an unsustainable way.”