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Employees key in contributing to a more sustainable society

Employees are the driving forces behind implementing sustainability in small businesses – not the owners. And sustainability can both stimulate business and motivate employees, SSE researcher Tina Sendlhofer finds.

My research indicates that every individual plays a major role in contributing to a more sustainable society,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

Another important finding in Sendlhofer’s thesis Organizing Corporate Social Responsibility: The Case of Employee Involvement at Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises is that decision-making to implement sustainability in smaller businesses depends on internal readiness to change, rather than on external pressure. 

“I believe learning from how small businesses work with sustainability can have great informative value also for larger businesses,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

Flat organization promotes sustainability  

Tina Sendlhofer means that a prerequisite for employees becoming personally involved in sustainability is that they are generally interested in sustainability. Another prerequisite is the organizational structure at the workplace.  

“Based on my studies I would say that a quite flat organizational structure with reduced levels of hierarchy and cross-functional jobs, can function as enabling conditions for employees to make the transition from being ‘only’ interested in sustainability to proactively work on solutions that promote sustainability,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

Why is that so? 

“With reduced levels of hierarchy, employees often have greater decision powers and direct links to external stakeholders. This means that a business is more dependent on the individual employee’s decisions and actions, but also that employees may directly experience the impact and consequences of their decisions and actions,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

A greater purpose vs financial growth 

There are plenty of studies according to Tina Sendlhofer, suggesting that improving environmental sustainability, like waste water management, or social sustainability, such as employee safety trainings, can contribute to a better business outcome through saving costs. This might be a motivator for the leadership to work with sustainable solutions. 

“However, I believe that the financial narrative behind why companies should become more sustainable is not a good motivator for the employees who engage with sustainability questions. Employees seek something else, such as a feeling of fulfilling a greater purpose through their job,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

Many employees have explained to her that rewarding non-financial performances for the company – such as sustainability – could help them stay motivated. For the management on the contrary it is important that the company generate similar financial growth while investing in sustainability solutions.  

“Most management could quickly move into symbolic sustainability work if financial sustainability must be sacrificed for environmental or social sustainability,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

A change in mind-set is needed 

One of the major insights that Tina Sendlhofer has gained from her research is that we must rethink how we think about sustainability.  

“Today we believe that making profits is the condition for long-term survival of the firm. I believe that this is the wrong approach. Financial sustainability is for sure important, but it will not help any business in the future if there are no resources left to generate these profits,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

According to Sendlhofer there are a lot of innovations and technological developments that might help to get around the diminishing resources problem, but Tina Sendlhofer believes what really needs to happen is a change in mind-set. 

“Why is it still possible that large oil companies are ranked among the best performers in sustainability? What is the purpose of a business and how can we move from valuing economic sustainability over environmental and social sustainability to a more balanced approach? These are important questions to address when building a more sustainable future,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

“I want my research to be part of the solution”

Practitioners and researchers know that business must undergo dramatic changes in how they create value and minimize their unethical negative impacts on environment and society. 

“I will continue my research on how businesses work with sustainability and what organizational processes lead to change. Now I am looking for companies from all kinds of industries that can participate in my studies. It is important to me that my research is part of the solution for a more sustainable society,” says Tina Sendlhofer. 

Interview by Emilie Eliasson Hovmöller

For more information:

Tinni Ernsjöö Rappe, Misum, 0708-36 66 41, e-mail: tinni.rappe@hhs.se

Tina Sendlhofer, e-mail: tina.sendlhofer@hhs.se