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Employees say corporate claims of ESG progress are baloney according to a new survey, and boards had better pay attention

Getty—Chloe Collyer/Bloomberg

Good morning,

Corporate directors often say they crave complete and unfiltered information about the companies they oversee. To that end, board members even visit company sites to chat directly with employees and gather intel on how well an organization is executing a strategy, and see for themselves the challenges workers are experiencing.

Well, a new survey by the Harris Poll and the Center for Sustainable Business at the University of Pittsburgh might save some travel time for directors curious about what workers really think of their company’s climate change efforts. The full results, shared with Fortune and outlined for MIT Sloan Management Review, paint a grim picture that almost certainly contradicts the cherry-picked information directors are given at board meetings.

It finds that 43% of employees think short-term focus, lack of investor interest and leadership that is apathetic towards sustainability is a challenge for their company. And only about one-third of workers say their companies have made “significant strides” toward hitting environmental goals. Perhaps most alarming? The line “Our leaders don’t believe in sustainability” resonated with 40% of respondents.

The survey suggests that many business leaders are either not pursuing climate-friendly goals, merely giving lip service to the environment, not communicating clearly with workers, or some combination of the above. But one thing is clear, according to CB Bhattacharya, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s center and a professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business: “It’s vivid as day that employees see companies are overly focused on profits and the short term.”

Employees can’t do much about this problem, he adds, but boards have the power to hold management teams accountable and insist that companies do better. What’s more, they should be motivated to do so, not only because employees might one day publicly criticize companies with accusations of misleading consumers and investors, but because the consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly obvious and dire.

Here’s what Bhattacharya would like to see boards do:

—Ensure that a company’s top management team “defines the value that the organization is creating for society” through their ESG goals, says Bhattacharya. “If a company cannot articulate that in this day and age, if sustainability has absolutely no place, then we are doomed.”

—Embed sustainability into every corporate practice, and make it a part of the company’s strategy. Bhattacharya, who is also the author of a book on this topic, Small Actions, Big Difference, says that the management team is responsible for developing a company’s climate strategy, but the board can create the capacity and impetus for the CEO and leadership team to do so.

—Allocate money and resources to train employees, so that they’re aware of the company’s sustainability goals and know how to fulfill them. Because boards oversee how resources are used, they can make environmental protection a priority, says the professor, and shift the focus away from a singular “obsession on quarterly profits and pandering to the market.”

Threading concern for the natural world into every corporate practice is not rocket science, Bhattacharya adds, “but it’s a mindset, and it’s hard work.”

His center plans to partner with the Harris Poll to conduct this survey annually and track trends. Stay tuned.

Lila MacLellan

This story was originally featured on

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