Employee participation and environmental training

A successful environmental management system relies on the positive forces of responsibility and creativity of all employees. The real challenge is to ensure that environmental management becomes and remains a productive force and a continuous source of innovation, rather than another burden on top of other daily procedures.

The value of employee participation lies in:

  • Alertness to important causes of inefficient use of inputs or emissions, that may else go unnoticed. As inputs are also directly linked to costs and emissions signals a possible wasted input, sometimes even costly to handle, such alertness is of direct economic benefit, besides its merit for the environmental performance. We have numerous examples that employees in their mapping of material and energy flows within their unit discover electrical appliances running without apparent purpose, “hidden” water losses, and even a “forgotten” heater in a cooling tunnel.
  • Preparedness to accept changes, when new procedures have to be implemented as part of the environmental management system or to improve environmental performance.
  • Spreading responsibility for the environment to all employees that take operational decisions is the best guarantee that problems are minimised and eventually entirely prevented.
  • Alertness to opportunities for reaping benefits through communicating the improvements in environmental performance already achieved.
  • A more stable workforce that takes more pride in their work and acts as ambassadors for their company in the community.
  • Embedding the investment in environmental training inside the company rather than letting the investment leak to external consultants.

It should be clear from the above that learning the procedures of the environmental management system is the least part of environmental training. The major part of environmental training lies in developing a commitment to continuous investigation of the structures and activities constituting the production chain and its interaction with the environment, and a competence to respond to the result of this investigation.

Such training must be interactive, investigating and challenging the participants’ attitudes to the environment and their understanding of their roles in relation to their work, the product they produce, and their opportunities in affecting its environmental impact. Although pre-conceived perceptions may be challenged and altered as a part of the training, the personnel must feel that their original perceptions of what the environment is, and what environmental performance is, and how it is influenced, are taken serious and investigated, in order to maintain and stimulate their active involvement.

Such training is best performed in groups, composed of participants from different parts of the company, preferably representing all activities from the raw materials enters into the company till the product reaches its customer. It is important that both middle and top management also take part in the training. More specific tasks may be solved as homework or in more homogenous groups in each department.

Barriers to employee participation

In his path-breaking book “The fifth discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization”, Peter Senge points to a number of behavioural patterns, so-called “learning disabilities”, which constitute barriers to implementing a learning organisation, and which certainly apply to environmental training too:

  • Inability to see beyond your own job description and see the meaning in learning new skills (“What does my job have to do with the environment?” “We never had to care about that before”),
  • Reacting aggressively or evasively to challenges, rather than calmly analysing your own contribution to the problem and what you can do about it (“Why don’t you make them do something about it?” “You’ll just have to communicate our position better”)
  • Focussing on specific short-term events, rather than slow, long-term processes (“We don’t need an environmental management system, we already took our precautions when that problem came up last year”)
  • Focussing on experience, when the problems are in fact too large or long-term to experience, but rather calls for logical analysis and reflection (“Let us now try this and then wait and see if that doesn’t solve the problem”),
  • Believing or presuming that you know the answer instead of questioning your own prejudices (“We all learned that at school, you don’t need to go over it again”).

Environmental issues may for some employees appear a very complicated topic, and initial training may therefore need to emphasise simple tools for identification and prioritisation of environmental aspects. It is important to convey a sense of success by drawing attention to solutions that can be easily implemented, so-called low-hanging fruits, even when these may be of minor importance in the overall company context.

Delegating responsibility is an essential key to creating motivation. The more complicated the task, and the more possibilities the employees have to control its solution, the higher the quality of learning.

Maintaining an environmental management system in a learning organisation

When the environmental management system has become routine, there can be a tendency to professionalize the environmental work, i.e. to let a few selected persons take over the responsibility. Although this may be an appropriate allocation of resources, it carries the danger of stagnation of the environmental management system, since it may discourage employees from addressing further environmental issues. In this phase, it is important to maintain a learning environment that allows everyone to contribute to the further development.

When hiring new personnel, special attention is needed to introduce the newcomers to the spirit that has been obtained during implementation of the environmental management system. Specific introduction sessions may be required, where the focus should not be the “bringing in line” of the newcomers, but rather to alert them to the openness with which these subjects are tackled. At the same time special attention should be given to take immediate advantage of the possible expertise or experience that the newcomers bring along, also noting that new eyes sometimes see things that go unnoticed by those who have been in the same position for years.

Special care is needed when hiring senior personnel, that they are introduced to the history and spirit of the management system, since they may else quickly disrupt the investment that has been made in both procedures and employee training. It is crucial that new senior personnel show respect for the environmental competence that has been built up and the individual employees that represent this intellectual capital. The alternative will typically be disappointment and apathy on behalf of the employees.

In fact, senior personnel and top management play the most crucial role in maintaining the learning organisation. It is from here that the spirit is originating and it is from here that the spirit is maintained. Only when managers show that they care about the environment and care about the learning organisation, it is possible to convince the employees that this is truly the company spirit. Thus, continuous attention and training is needed at the management level to keep the spirit of the learning organisation alive.

Active reward systems can be a good way to provide a continuous signal that environment matters and that continuous alertness and improvement is appreciated.

Measuring the effectiveness of training

One of the most widely referenced models for training evaluation is provided by Kirkpatrick (Techniques for evaluating training programs. Training and Development Journal 33(6):78-92 (1979). It contains fours levels: Reaction, learning, transfer and results.

Today, most training sessions are only evaluated on the first level: on the participants’ evaluation of the training, e.g. on a scoring form. The more formal evaluation of what the participants actually learned, through tests before and after the training session, is less common in workplace learning, but gaining ground. The two last levels of evaluation are more difficult and thus not widely used. However, the trend is clearly that also these forms of evaluation are on the increase.

Kirkpatrick’s third level of evaluation is transfer of learning as measured through pre- and post-training assessment of behavioural changes, e.g. whether employees after training react differently to situations where they become aware of wasteful practices. Transfer of learning measurements may include participants’ own assessment, as well as the assessment by subordinates, peers and superiors. The post-training measurement should not be performed earlier than 3 months after the training in order that the participants have had an opportunity to practice what they have learned.

Kirkpatrick’s fourth level of training evaluation is results evaluation, measured e.g. in terms of improved productivity, reduced energy use, reduced waste or scrap, reduced water use, reduced biological content in waste water, reduced discard, improved safety record, reduced days of illness, improved compliance with regulations, number of employee suggestions, number of new ideas implemented, reduced turnover in the workforce, improved qualifications of job applicants, reduced downtime, reduced need for supervision, improved customer satisfaction (less complaints), and eventually increased market share. Results evaluation is not possible without the use of control groups, due to the many disturbing influences that may also affect the mentioned measurement criteria. Some additional effects of training may be less measurable, such as the ability to predict and avoid future problems.

Experience and more reading

We have experience in introducing product oriented environmental management issues into learning organisations, especially in the food industry, see also a bakery project. Some more specific issues related to the food industry can be found in our contribution “Environmental training for the food industry”.