Like Kermit the Frog once said, it's not easy being green. But the right training makes it easier.
Since the 1970s, environmental groups and political associations have been calling on businesses to take more responsibility for how their operations affect the world around them. They've been forcing businesses to clean up their toxic spills, stop operating sweatshops, and start developing products that require fewer resources and do less harm to users and bystanders.
Naturally, business has resisted the idea. But a series of PR disasters (think Nike and Wal-Mart) has convinced business owners that it might be less expensive in the long run to get out in front of the demands for more socially responsible ways of doing business. For example, Intel created a new position (vice president of corporate responsibility) whose role is to find ways for the company to be more green.
Some companies still resist the idea, and instead of becoming more socially responsible, they take actions to look more socially responsible, a practice known as greenwashing. But those companies are really missing the boat. Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation, says that businesses often shy away from making their operations more environmentally friendly or socially responsible because they fear the associated expenses, but he argues that those costs—which are often less than companies expect—are often worth it in terms of later savings. Not only that, but one unexpected by-product might be a more engaged workforce.
"There is a lot of discussion about how human resources are a company's most valuable resources, but I'm often amazed at the gap between most companies' behavior and that belief," Hollender says. "Being a responsible business is one of the most effective ways to generate passion, excitement and commitment. Beyond being the nice thing and the right thing, strategically there is huge value in being the kind of business that people feel proud of working at."
Every company can be more socially responsible, but because every company is different, there's no formula for how. One place to start is to think about whatever kind of bad press your company has gotten in the last year. Have environmental groups been protesting at your plants? Have editorials in local newspapers been taking your company to task for its labor practices? These may seem like flea bites, but you can lose business when your practices damage too many people. Think of these moments as opportunities for your company to find and avoid potential problems, and even to find unexpected savings or benefits that wouldn't be found any other way. And when it's time for a company to make changes, that's where training comes in.
Some companies are just making small changes, like asking their employees to recycle paper more often. But a few pioneers are applying a little imagination and a lot of effort to the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and they're leveraging the efforts of their training departments to make that idea stick and work in their businesses.
Some, like Gilbane Construction, are training their employees to provide the greener and more sustainable services that customers are demanding. In the construction industry, more and more clients want buildings that are friendly to the environment and save money by doing so. Others, like Seventh Generation, are trying to make sure that everything they put out in the world—products, services, employee actions—have a minimal impact on the environment and don't consume so many resources. And still others, like Shaw Industries, are using the training resources that they already have to create a positive impact on the communities near their business operations.
Gilbane: Giving Customers What They Want
Gilbane Construction, a building company headquartered in Providence, R.I., is still owned and run by the same family that established it in 1873. Deb Pereira says that concerns about building in an environmentally friendly way have been important to the company for several years. "It's been part of the culture and the thought process for a long time, but a formal involvement in terms of training and operational modes took hold about five years ago," says Pereira, a regulatory services executive for Gilbane.
That formal involvement takes several forms, but the bulk of it is related to the way Gilbane's building professionals design and build projects. Customers have been showing more and more interest in buildings that have been designed so that construction is less wasteful of materials and the resulting building uses less electricity—in short, green buildings. Between the savings on energy costs and the tax breaks that are available, the prospect of building green is becoming more attractive to customers. It's an example of how a business can be both responsible and profitable.
That's why Gilbane is offering certification and training for its employees in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system. LEED is a set of standards for constructing buildings in an environmentally responsible and minimally wasteful way.
The standards were created by the U.S. Building Green Council, a coalition of building product managers, owners, utilities, government entities and other stakeholders in the construction trade. Members work together "to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work," and toward that end the council promotes the LEED standards. When a building is built according to those standards, it is considered LEED-certified.
Building professionals can become LEED-accredited by passing an exam. And Gilbane's main efforts in supporting its sustainability goals in building are in teaching its building professionals about LEED.
One course Gilbane offers is intended to help Gilbane employees who want to take the LEED exam. This eight-hour course is called LEED Accredited Professional Prep, and it covers the LEED scorecard, reviews design decisions and explains the necessary documentation a builder must keep for the building in order for it to be LEED-certified. Participants in the course can also go to Gilbane's green portal, a page on the company's intranet that contains practice exams, study guides, test outlines and other resources.
The other course, Achieving LEED New Construction Success, is specific to Gilbane's operations. It covers the information construction managers need to have in order to work with all departments—estimating, purchasing and so on—to produce a LEED-certified building. "For example, one standard that the builder might try to satisfy is a high level of recycled material," Pereira says. "Well, steel that has a higher amount of recycled content in it has a longer lead time for delivery. So the manager needs to make sure the [building] schedule recognizes that, and takes account of the impact on the work."
The company is also structured to support CSR more generally. There's one regional green team in each of the nine regions where Gilbane has operations, and their purpose is to help everyone in that region develop and use sustainable business practices and to keep everyone up to date in the latest methods and practices.
Seventh Generation Does No Harm
Some companies come to this idea of socially responsible business unwillingly, but other companies are founded on the idea. Jeffrey Hollender is the president of Seventh Generation, a company in Burlington, Vt., that manufactures and sells household products such as toilet paper and detergent that do not harm the environment when used. The name of the company, in fact, comes from the idea of considering the impact of decisions, not only now, but for the next seven generations.
Hollender says that training and education help the company to be that responsible. But he also feels that it's essential not to compartmentalize the idea of responsibility. Instead of thinking of responsibility as something employees learn and then go back to their jobs, he says, Seventh Generation won't be a responsible company unless the idea of responsibility permeates everything it does.
"To have a company that is responsible, you have to start with the internal culture of the company," Hollender says. "You have to build the values in. You can have all the products and initiatives and cause marketing you want, but you can't have a socially responsible company without a culture of responsibility."
Seventh Generation already has structures in place that foster that culture. For example, employees create annual development plans, which include key results objectives (KROs) that support the company's mission, vision, values and operating principles. A portion of each employee's bonus is based on realization of those objectives, some of which are based on corporate responsibility goals. For example, Hollender says, one sales manager's goals might include one to help sales brokers create greener home offices.
But Hollender says the system is being changed, because employees' commitment to corporate responsibility should not be isolated to one objective. "We're trying to evolve the process so that that dimension is present in everything they do," Hollender says.
To make that happen, Laurie Allen explains that the company is going to change its performance planning process to help employees focus on external stakeholders, such as customers (the retail stores that carry Seventh Generation's products), consumers, and the company's major distributors. "We want them to think about their performance in terms of how they increase those stakeholders' effectiveness," says Allen, the vice president of organizational development at Seventh Generation.
All Seventh Generation employees serve on one of the buyer class field teams, and are expected to spend four to five hours a month learning everything they can about the buyer class of their team (customers, consumers or distributors). The idea is to make sure employees understand exactly what those stakeholders are up against. When the performance planning system is changed, it will be changed so that it is focused on employees' demonstrated efforts to help stakeholders be more effective in selling, using or distributing more responsibly. "You can't increase your organization's capability and capacity without increasing those of the individuals in your organization," Allen says.
The company employs many other channels to use education that extends Seventh Generation's ability to be responsible beyond its corporate borders. Every employee's orientation includes education in the health and environmental issues that relate to the products Seventh Generation sells, but customer service employees often field very specific questions about those products. Two newsletters keep them and consumers informed about those issues, and customer service employees also have access to a chemist who acts as a subject matter expert who fields more complicated questions about products that they aren't qualified to answer.
Seventh Generation also tries to educate and work with its supply chain and manufacturing partners so that those companies' businesses are as responsible as they can be as well. The company offers a training program to its retail partners so that when those partners open new stores, the new employees can be trained in how Seventh Generation's products are created in a responsible way. It also visits its manufacturing partners once or twice a year to conduct an audit, and the company's first manufacturing partner summit takes place this month. Part of that summit will be a day during which Seventh Generation will spend a day covering issues of corporate responsibility with those manufacturing partners. "It's about helping people understand how we got here, and telling stories that embody how we practice CR every day," Hollender says.
Shaw Industries: Doing Well by Doing Good
Kids: Stay in school. It's the message parents repeat endlessly, because they want their kids to have the employment opportunities others do. But not many companies are out there saying, "Go back to school and finish."
Shaw Industries, a flooring manufacturer in Dalton, Ga., is the biggest employer in Dalton. In the late 1980s, the company got involved with a joint effort between other businesses and the chamber of commerce in Dalton to address a problem: the high dropout rate for Dalton's high school.
Why did the company get involved? It actually benefits Shaw in more than one way, according to Brian Cooksey, manager of operations training and development for Shaw. It's a nice thing for the company to do, but it's also a way for Shaw to invest in its workforce and help employees to perform better and move up in the company to better positions and more responsibility. Employees are more committed to Shaw as a result of the program, and they're more likely to believe that the company cares about them and has their interests in mind—which means they're more likely to stay.
Shaw couldn't stop the dropouts, but it could help its employees go back and earn their GEDs. Rather than using advertising or other one-off approaches, Shaw hired contract instructors to conduct classes for employees who wanted to earn their GEDs. In 1995, the Shaw Skills Center was established, where employees could come in and receive instruction, study materials and other services several days a week. In 1996, computer-based training was added.
When employees drop in at the Skills Center for the first time, they take an evaluation to determine their reading, math and writing skills. After that, the staff provides one-on-one or group instruction and helps employees prepare for the GED exam. Computer based language training in both English and Spanish is also available.
Today, employees don't even have to come to the center; now the training staff is starting to provide more classes and testing on-site so that employees easily can participate before or after their shifts. Shaw's efforts don't stop with instruction, either. The company gives employees up to 22 hours of paid time to study for the GED. It pays the fee when an employee is ready to take the exam, and the cap and gown fee when an employee passes and wants to participate in a graduation ceremony.
Cooksey says that by paying the various fees and offering paid time to study, Shaw is removing the roadblocks that would ordinarily prevent employees from ever pursuing the GED. The help made all the difference for Maria Perez, a recruiter at Shaw who earned her GED through the Shaw Skills Center. Perez says that earning the GED has already made a difference for her.
"At that time I was working 10 hours a week on the second shift, but it was easy because I was so close to the skills center," Perez says. "I knew I wanted to move up from the plant to an office position in the company, and now I have, and I'm grateful that Shaw had this program."
Annually, the company holds a special lunch and ceremony to congratulate employees who have passed the GED exam, and Cooksey says that the ceremony lets the company not only honor employees' achievement but encourage others to emulate it.
"Over the last 10 years, 1,200 Shaw employees have gotten their GEDs, and that's great, but we still have more employees out there who we're trying to get to that level as well," Cooksey says. "It's important for us to do things that develop the talent we have in order to meet our business needs."
Holly Dolezalek is a contributing editor to Training. E-mail comments to email@example.com.