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Employee activism, from composting to protests, is an HR issue

Employee activism may be giving rise to 'green teams' or formal sustainability efforts. The development can be a positive opportunity for employees and provide payback in terms of employee engagement.

Similar to many software companies, CyberArk Software Ltd. has policies and practices that appeal to people with skills in high demand. They include a social responsibility policy and catered lunches. The information security software firm also has something else that appeals to younger employees -- an employee activism effort that brought about some real change.

Lex Register, an associate in corporate development and strategy at CyberArk, was hired in 2018. Soon after, he saw gaps in the firm's environmental sustainability practices. The firm wasn't, for instance, collecting food scraps for composting.

"If you've never composted before, the idea of leaving left out food in your office can be sort of a sticky subject," Register said, who has a strong interest in environmental issues.

Lex RegisterLex Register

Register approached his managers at CyberArk's U.S. headquarters in Newton, Mass., about improving its environmental sustainability. He had some specific ideas and wanted to put together an employee team to work on it. Management gave it approval and a budget.

Register helped organize a "green team," which now makes up about 25% of its Newton office staff of 200. The firm's global workforce is about 1,200.

CyberArk's green team has four subgroups: transportation, energy, community and "green" habits in the office. It also has a management steering committee. Collectively, these efforts undertake a variety of actions such as volunteering on projects in the community, improving environmental practices in the office and working on bigger issues, such as installing electric vehicle charging stations for the office building.

When I think about the companies I want to work for, I really want to have pride in everything they do.
Lex RegisterAssociate in corporate development and strategy, CyberArk Software

"When I think about the companies I want to work for, I really want to have pride in everything they do," Register said. 

Junior employees lead the effort

The green team subgroups are headed by junior employees, according to Register, who is 28.

"It's a way for a lot of our junior employees who don't necessarily have responsibility for managing people to sort of step up," Register said. They "can run some of their own projects and show some leadership capabilities."

Employee activism has become an increasingly public issue in the last 12 months. In May, for instance, thousands of Amazon employees signed a letter pressing the firm for action. In September, thousands walked out as part of the Global Climate Strike.

"This walkout is either a result of employees not feeling heard," said Henry Albrecht, CEO at Limeade Inc., or employees feeling heard but fundamentally disagreeing with their leaders. Limeade makes employee experience systems. "The first problem has a simple fix: listen to employees, regularly, intentionally and with empathy," he said. 

Some companies, such as Ford Motor Co., are using HR tools to listen to their employees and get more frequent feedback. In an interview with SearchHRSoftware, a Ford HR official said recently this kind of feedback encouraged the firm to join California in seeking emission standards that are stricter than those sought by President Trump's administration.   

But employee activism that leads to public protest doesn't tell the full employee activism story.

Interest in green teams rising

The Green Business Bureau provides education, assessment tools and processes that firms can use to measure their sustainability practices. In the past nine months, Bill Zujewski, CMO at the bureau, said it's been hearing more about the formation of sustainability committees at firms. The employees leading the efforts are "almost always someone who's a few years out of school," he said.

HR managers, responding to "employee-driven" green initiatives, are often the ones Zujewski hears from.

Maggie OkponobiMaggie Okponobi

Maggie Okponobi, funding coordination manager at School Specialty Inc, is one of the Green Business Bureau's clients. Her employer is an educational services and products firm based in Greenville, Wisc. Her job is to help schools secure federal and state grants.

Okponobi is in an MBA program that has an emphasis on sustainability. As a final project, she proposed bringing a green certification to her company. The assessments evaluate a firm's sustainability activities against best environmental practices.

Okponobi explained what she wanted to do to one of the executives. She got support and began her research, starting with an investigation of certification programs. She decided on Green Business Bureau assessments, as did CyberArk.

Company managers at School Specialty had been taking ad-hoc steps all along to improve sustainability. Efforts included installing LED lighting, and reducing paper by using both sides for printing and recycling, Okponobi said.

Okponobi collected data about the environmental practices for certification. The firm discovered it was eligible for gold level certification, one step below the highest level, platinum. 

The results were brought to an executive group, which included members from HR as well as marketing. Executives saw value in the ranking, and Okponobi believes it will help with recruiting efforts, especially with younger candidates. The company plans to create a green team to coordinate the sustainability efforts.

HR benefits from sustainability

Sustainability may help with retention, especially with younger workers, Okponobi said. "It gives them something exciting, positive to do in their workplace, and a goal to work toward," she said.

Some employees are coming to workplaces with training on sustainability issues. One group that provides that kind of training is Manomet Inc., a 50-year-old science-based non-profit in Plymouth, Mass.

"We can't make the progress that we need on climate change and other issues without the for-profit sector," said Lora Babb, program manager of sustainable economies at Manomet.

Lora BabbLora Babb

The nonprofit takes about 20 undergrad college students each year, usually enrolled in majors that often have a sustainability component, and gives them "real world skills" to meet with businesses and conduct assessments. The training enables future employees to "make changes from the inside," and understand practical, applied sustainability, Babb said.

This is not strictly an environmental assessment. The students also ask businesses about economic and social issues, including a workforce assessment that considers employee benefits, engagement and talent development, Babb said. 

A business with a strong environmental mission is "going to be far less effective at carrying out that mission if you are having constant workforce challenges," Babb said.

And the results of such efforts can have an effect on culture. CyberArk's employees have embraced composting, Register said. The company hired a firm that picks up food scraps about twice a week, processes them and makes compost -- what master gardeners often refer to as black gold -- available for employees to use in their home gardens. 

The results make employee composting efforts "very tangible for them," Register said. 

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