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4 Strategies for HR to Turn ESG Plans Into Action

By Michelle Gouldsberry
January 30, 2023
4 minute read

It takes a village to achieve big, hairy audacious goals. Many organizations have made big promises to invest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, but how do companies translate such lofty ambitions, like reducing carbon footprint and fighting hunger, into actions that yield real and sustainable results?

More than half (57%) of executives surveyed for Deloitte’s 2022 Sustainability Action Report have already implemented a cross-functional working group to drive strategic attention to ESG efforts, and another 42% of executives report actively taking steps to implement a working group.

Yet, all too often, those ambitions fail to materialize meaningful progress. 

Why? There’s a disconnect between what organizations want to achieve, and the daily actions and behaviors it takes to have a measurable impact. Many companies have plenty of willing and enthusiastic participants (employees) who want to contribute to the greater good. The trick is to enable the entire company to participate at scale. To scale up, you first have to break down your big ESG initiative into smaller tangible and achievable goals that everyone can have a hand in bringing to fruition.

For ESG efforts to be successful, there has to be alignment between a business’s strategic goals and each team member’s objectives. Transparency from the top can foster greater engagement and accountability down the org chart, so your efforts aren’t concentrated in a boardroom but lived every day by your workforce.

Ready to follow through on your good intentions? Explore these four ways to operationalize ESG through your daily processes, behaviors, and performance.

1. Align ESG goals across the org chart

People across the organization often have trouble seeing the connection between the lofty goals set at the top and their role, as individuals, in driving them forward. That poses a challenge for executing the ESG goals you’ve set for the business. 

Providing a line of sight from the strategic goals to each role down the org chart allows employees to see their potential for impact. As you commit to ESG goals, communicate what that means in terms of daily actions and objectives for people across the business. 
Consider pollution prevention efforts in manufacturing, for example. When you look at it as a compliance exercise imposed from the top, the initiative loses a lot of its power to inspire. But when you can imbue those actions with a purpose to achieve a greater good, people will understand why they’re taking those actions and feel more agency doing them.

2. Channel words into actions

Daily interactions between managers and employees are a powerful way to keep ESG top of mind in people’s daily work — but that opportunity often goes untapped. To harness everyday interactions, you must facilitate transparent, targeted conversations between managers and their reports.

Managers are uniquely positioned to translate organizational commitments into actions that make a difference. Empower them to have transparent conversations with team members to help them turn lofty statements into individual objectives. For each objective, set clear key results to indicate progress, and input these OKRs into your goal alignment system to set a baseline for success.

Maybe an employee finds that your goal to build a relationship with and support the local community resonates with their personal values and interests. If they feel empowered to bring that up to their manager, they can collaborate as a team to turn that interest into a personal development objective. A manager might point that team member to opportunities to serve on a socially-oriented committee, for example, or to pursue a community liaison certification.

3. Foster accountability through actionable feedback

Setting goals is just step one. The real impact comes from bringing those objectives to life. ‌Regular performance feedback between managers and employees provides accountability for achieving stated objectives.

Provide channels for managers to leave real-time, action-oriented comments, as well as recognition for progress toward goals. Facilitate feedback in several directions, giving stakeholders across different teams and projects the opportunity to recognize each other and suggest actionable changes. For feedback to be successful, you need a strong foundation of trust and transparency.

Maybe you’re rolling out a pay transparency policy as part of your governance initiatives, for instance. That’s a multifaceted project, and keeping it on track requires regular feedback from several stakeholders.

4. Maintain your momentum

Since individual people are responsible for bringing your goals to life, maintaining progess toward your ESG goals relies heavily on employee engagement. To track that, you need to know what employees are thinking and how they feel about your ESG initiatives — both in terms of their own responsibilities and yours.

Listening to employees — and acting on their feedback — builds transparency and trust. Survey employees frequently to learn whether they feel connected to their purpose, and whether they have the right support to achieve their ESG goals. Collect honest feedback from your employees so they can hold you accountable for your commitments, too. 

Consider a governance goal to implement a whistleblower program, for example. Pulse surveys can tell you whether employees trust that the process is truly safe and anonymous, or whether you’ll take their concerns seriously.

How will you turn ESG commitments into action?

The secret to achieving your ESG goals isn’t complicated, but it does require more than a promise. By incorporating actions and behaviors that drive your ESG goals into daily processes, you’ll take the first step toward real progress.

Learn how to make a big impact on both your ESG initiatives and your employees by watching Making Most of a Pivotal Moment.