Taking the ‘green’ concept beyond the environment

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

jerald_robinsonNo, not red, white and blue – green. The word is gaining popularity in many quarters. Changed your light bulbs at home? Perhaps you have seen the “Green Manual for Dummies.” Former Vice President Al Gore received a 2007 Nobel Prize for his creation of a significant awareness campaign about global warming. The effort moved ahead faster as business firms have sought to become “green.”

Green businesses aim to solve both environmental and social problems, instead of causing them. In addition, they adopt principles, policies and practices that improve the quality of life for their customers, employees, communities and the environment. Creating more green businesses has become a core part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

Yet with a faltering economy and lower gas prices (relative to last year), the green movement may become merely a fad, and some business leaders continue to resist the movement. Some recent data raises questions. A November 2008 corporate responsibility survey conducted by Business for Social Responsibility and Cone LLC is troubling. In the face of the current economic conditions, 31 percent of respondents saw their corporate and social responsibility budgets decreasing.

Perhaps we need to reset the way we think about “green,” or environmental responsibility. At Xerox, for example, “green” is not a corporate function housed in a separate unit devoted to social responsibility. Green solutions and sustainable strategies are smart business – for everyone. Xerox managers say, “The greener we get, the more we can reduce costs and boost efficiency. The more we reduce costs, the more productive a business can become, and the better we can weather the maladies of the global business market.”

Green has become a business tool and it can be one for you, too.

Wal-Mart reduced costs by $1 million a year just by shutting off the lights in its vending machines. (A good “cost” even for you to attack?) And a real plus: It seems that Wall Street sees the value of green as well. According to a Thomson Reuters study, 82 percent of investors evaluate environmental, social and governance criteria as part of their investment decisions, because they believe these actions impact share prices. Yet there are other aspects to this green movement.

Management must become green – A far more expansive “green” concept has emerged in former Yahoo chief solutions officer Tim Sanders’ business management book, “Saving the World at Work,” where he speaks of bettering a company’s social performance in the workplace. “I want to recruit you, and train you, for the Responsibility Revolution,” Sanders writes. “I want to help you feel good about your company and grow more good within it.”

Valuing and treating employees “well and fairly” is the top driver of a company’s social reputation -    A 2006 National Consumers League survey found that almost half of U.S. investors believed that “treating and paying employees well is the most important proof of good corporate social responsibility, more so than environmental stewardship and philanthropy. Simply “going green” or supporting charities is not sufficient. Investing in your work force is as important as investing in the infrastructure.

What are some ways a manager can go green then? The list seems almost endless. Most managers might wish to choose one or a few of these and begin their investment in them first. Do not tackle all at once.

1. Mentorship efforts: Did you come up through the ranks? Can you identify someone within your operations that you could offer valuable professional, technical, financial or personal advice and counsel? The key is to treat others with empathy and respect. Their only obligation should be to find others with whom they can share their own assistance. Mentoring as a value can be planted in your company culture in this manner. Mentoring could also be for a person outside your own company.

2. Integrate a new person into the company: Help the newbie to network with others who have similar interests and backgrounds. E-mail information about the newbie (provided by the new person) can be sent throughout the organization and not just in one department. Informal lunches hosted by an appropriate manager can lead to discussions that can be continued in the weeks to come and generate a greater awareness of the workplace dynamics, as well as a feeling of comfort.

3. Give an abundance of recognition: One of the earliest business leaders to propose recognition as a desirable management value was Charles Schwab (no, not the brokerage firm Schwab). As president of Bethlehem Steel, he was often quoted as saying: “I’m hearty with my approbation and lavish with praise.” Schwab believed, long before research proved him correct, that people “needed” recognition and praise – recognition at work for both professional and personal accomplishments. However, the recognition and praise must be authentic and not a rote statement. Make sure to give recognition to all employees, not merely to those whom you like or notice. A special commendation should be provided for those who make a real difference in the community, not merely at work. People should be valued in a green-managed company.

4. Find a miserable job and give it a makeover: A recent Gallup poll found that 70 percent of American workers hate their jobs. The Table Consulting Group has identified three sources of that discontent: A) anonymity – feeling that the boss has no real interest in me or my work; B) irrelevance – feeling that the job is really not important in the organization or in the lives of others, that it could be eliminated and no one would notice; C) lack of metrics – the inability of employees to assess for themselves their contribution. Do these three job characteristics appear somewhere in your workplace? Do not delude yourself. Find them and revamp those jobs and make the jobholders more productive and more satisfied.

5. Limit computer time to five hours or less: In 2002, researchers found that “mental health and sleep-  related disorders” are significantly higher among workers having more than five hours of daily computer use. Many maladies potentially develop after that five-hour threshold is crossed: heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune system and depression disorders. Help people take a break from computers. Force face-to-face meetings to get workers away from the screen. Never allow employees to be at their PC work stations for more than three hours continuously. Help each worker take a break from the computer once an hour. Productivity will rise, and work-illness costs will be reduced.

6. Don’t encroach on personal or family time: The current business climate in some work settings is to accomplish more with fewer people. Especially for salaried employees, this has meant a change from a Monday-to-Friday to a seven-day workweek in order to accomplish the work to be done. This is not acceptable in a green management setting. Similarly, corporate events and sales meetings are often held on weekends. This is not acceptable; if the meetings are not worth having during the workweek, are they really needed at all? Weekend meetings take away from family time. Some people seem to feel tied to the workplace. Find a way to make them go home.

7. Champion diversity: The younger labor market and the professional-  technical labor markets will anticipate your workplace to be diverse. They see it as green management – social innovators who hire the best and seek to have a balanced work force. Diversity champions watch their language. Managers are not merely “he.” Do not say, “Bring your wives.” Say, “Bring your partners.” Even Rotary International now refers to Rotarians as “Rotary partners.”

8. Build community networks and support community groups: Prepare a list of every community organization and public and private school, and locate a contact person. Whether you manage a large or small organization, consider sponsoring a community group, perhaps a sports team or Little League, or a spelling bee. Do you have a large meeting room? Consider allowing a community group to use it as meeting space. Build community loyalty and support.

The list goes on. Surely you can find one of these green management tools to get started with. I would love to know what you do.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus – international management at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or  e-mail JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.

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