Employee Sustainability Behaviors (ESB)
Employees engage in a range of ethical behaviors in the workplace with varying levels of complexity (Hunt & Vitell, 1986). At one end are a myriad of basic, routine behaviors that meet certain minimum moral standards of society or adhere to prevalent ethics norms in the workplace (see Trevino et al., 2014). These include refraining from accepting a bribe, lying and cheating, and using the company’s resources for personal purposes and, generally, being honest (e.g., Fu, 2014). At the other end are what Trevino et al. (2014) call “extraordinary ethical behaviors that go beyond society’s moral minima” (p. 637) and are typically, but not necessarily, discretionary (e.g., charitable giving, whistle blowing, and, more generally, organizational citizenship behaviors or OCB).
Among such “extraordinary ethical behaviors,” most germane for our research, are a set of sustainability-oriented behaviors investigated as employee green behaviors (Francoeur et al., 2021), or “actions and behaviors that employees engage in that are linked with and contribute to or detract from environmental sustainability” (Ones & Dilchert, 2012, p. 87), and more specifically, organizational citizenship behaviors for the environment (i.e., OCBE; Boiral et al., 2015, 2018). Interestingly, while the ethicality of sustainability behaviors is rooted in the minimization (maximization) of a company’s harmful (beneficial) effects in both the environmental and social domains (Paille et al., 2019), employee green behaviors and OCBE are restricted to only one of these two non-economic dimensions of sustainability (i.e., the environment). Far less investigated are what we call, based on prior research (Pellegrini et al., 2018), employee sustainability behaviors (i.e., ESB), which encompass not just their pro-environmental behaviors but also their pro-social ones (Pellegrini et al., 2018), contributing more completely, together with their efforts towards a company’s economic goals, to greater sustainability.
Importantly, three key aspects of employees’ sustainability-oriented behaviors (i.e., green behaviors, OCBE, ESB) render these as particularly complex ethical behaviors, making these less likely to be motivated by—and implementable through—not just the relatively objective and concrete ethics codes and programs (i.e., rules; Zoghbi-Manrique-de-Lara, 2010) prevalent in companies but also, more broadly, employees’ perceptions of the often formal ethical procedures, policies, and management systems in their companies (i.e., ethical climate; Lu & Lin, 2014). First, since sustainability involves going beyond the moral minima to maximizing the welfare of a multitude of stakeholders (Freeman et al., 2020) rather than just that of the firm, the sustainability-oriented behaviors of employees are, like other complex ethical behaviors (Hunt & Vitell, 1986), not so much about right and wrong as they are about the coherent and reinforcing balancing of the diverse needs, goals, and rights of different stakeholder groups and issues, which are likely distinct and sometimes even conflicting (e.g., between social justice, environmental integrity, and economic efficiency). In that, the decision to engage in such behaviors is a choice not “between good and evil but rather among various goods” (Kibert et al., 2011). Second, sustainability-oriented behaviors pertain, by definition, to the company’s obligation to future generations, which requires a more abstract, longer-term ethical perspective wherein short-term benefits to one stakeholder group may need to be traded off with longer-term benefits to another. Finally, deliberative, rule-based ethical reasoning may not work as well for such behaviors (Kibert et al., 2011) due to both employees’ general inexperience with sustainability issues as well as their more basic cognitive limitations in the face of the complexity and uncertainty inherent in the “grand challenges” of sustainability.
These differences point to the need for companies interested in encouraging ESB to frame the ethical issues at the heart of sustainability in an expansive manner, going beyond mutually exclusive and opposed solutions (i.e., dualistic choices) between social, environmental, and economic goods to create, ideally, a broad, sincere, relevant and shared organizational vision that is caring (Carmeli et al., 2017) and energizing (George et al., 2021) rather than coercive and punitive (Kibert et al., 2011). The basic premise of our work is that employees’ sense of a meaningful and authentic corporate purpose comprises such a guiding ethical frame, encouraging employees to engage deeply and holistically with the notion of sustainability, taking psychological ownership of it and, thus, being more likely to perform ESB. We elaborate on this premise next.
Corporate purpose, often articulated as an explicit statement (see Appendix A), is the reason why a business exists (Ellsworth, 2002). However, both scholars and practitioners underscore that an explicit purpose statement is neither necessary nor sufficient for a company to be purpose-driven (Gartenberg, 2021). For purpose to be meaningful and affect action, it needs to be cascaded, enacted and absorbed throughout the organization, through appropriate and sustained communications and actions, to reside ultimately in the minds of all employees as a sense for why their company exists, beyond just making money. Notably, a company’s purpose is fundamentally different from its mission, vision, and values in that it is more outward-focused: purpose asks what the company does for others, rather than how it sees itself or where it wishes to be in relation to its competitors (Kenny, 2014). As well, purpose and corporate social responsibility (CSR), while related in their focus on the triple bottom line value in terms of people, planet, profit, are not the same. CSR refers to “a socio-political movement which generates private self-regulatory initiatives, incorporating public and private international law norms seeking to ameliorate and mitigate the social harms of and to promote public good by industrial organizations” (Sheehy, 2015), whereas corporate purpose is articulated in terms of the benefit or good a particular business provides to society at large. More practically, whereas CSR is a volitional activity restricted to certain departments of a company (Bhattacharya, 2019), purpose is the overarching guiding force that permeates all corners of an organization (including its CSR activities) and drives all aspects of the business.
Purpose answers the fundamental question “why does a company do what it does?” and is, at least today, articulated in terms of the value a business provides to not just its shareholders but to society at large, through its multitude of stakeholders. In that, the contemporary notion of corporate purpose is rooted in the deontological perspective of Kantian ethics, which stakeholder theory (Freeman et al., 2004) articulates as the ethical responsibility business organizations have “to protect and promote the interests of their stakeholders” (Kaptein, 2008, p. 981). In other words, purpose is an inherently ethical notion; in the words of Bartlett and Ghoshal (1994), it is “a company’s moral response to its broadly defined responsibilities, not an amoral plan for exploiting commercial opportunity” (p. 88).
Given this, we contend that purpose helps establish the firm as an essentially ethical entity in the eyes of its employees, guiding their ethical actions in a diversity of domains. More specifically, we argue that purpose is particularly effective as a motivating ethical manifesto for the more complex “extraordinary ethical behaviors that go beyond society’s moral minima” (Trevino et al., 2014, p. 637), such as ESB. This is because a firm’s purpose serves as a unifying, relevant, ethical frame that drives ethical behaviors (Freeman et al., 2020) by embodying and fostering a general ethic of care (Carmeli et al., 2017) towards its stakeholders, rooted in concern for the good of others rather than through the “rational, universal, principle or rule-based and impersonal approaches to ethics” (Carmeli et al., 2017, p. 1381) that often guide the more basic ethical behaviors of employees (e.g., honesty).
What then might be the psychological mechanism through which an employee’s sense of their employer’s purpose encourages ESB? We suggest that rather than guide such complex ethical behaviors through a deliberative and logical understanding of their rightness (i.e., a cognitive mechanism), purpose works in a more holistic, comprehensive, and experiential way to cause employees to feel psychological ownership of sustainability (Avey et al., 2012). This mediating role of sustainability ownership (i.e., SO) is discussed next.
The Role of Sustainability Ownership
We define SO as a state in which employees feel as though sustainability, or a piece of it, is their ‘own’ (Pierce et al., 2001). Based on recent findings that people can feel psychological ownership of not just material possessions but also public goods and even intangible objects such as ideas, cultures, and movements (e.g., Peck et al., 2020), we argue that employees can feel SO. By being directed toward an intangible notion (i.e., sustainability), rather than a particular organization, set of tasks, or work role, SO is conceptually different from other work-related psychological states such as organizational identification (Dutton et al., 1994), psychological empowerment (Spreitzer, 1995), and work engagement (Schaufeli et al., 2002).
Why might purpose be an effective driver of SO? Research on psychological ownership coalesces on three basic human needs that it fulfills: (a) self-identity, or the need to define, express and feel good about oneself, (b) belongingness, or the need for personal meaning through connections, and (c) efficacy, or the need to feel competent and in control. Thus, to the extent that most humans have a fundamental need to see themselves as good, ethical people and corporate purpose helps establish the firm as an essentially ethical entity, engagement in ESB as part of and for such an entity satisfies employees’ self-identity and belongingness needs.
To elaborate, given that a company’s purpose renders it a force for good for its stakeholders, it confers on its sustainability efforts, which is also stakeholder-oriented, a clarity and significance (Pierce et al., 2009) that it lacks when it is articulated in the face of a shareholder value creation goal. By explicating the firm’s contribution to society, purpose renders sustainability an issue that employees are likely to view as worthier of ownership with the promise of greater job and even life meaningfulness. In other words, articulating corporate purpose allows employees to not only understand why sustainability matters and makes sense for the firm (Gartenberg, 2021) but also embeds the latter (sustainability) in the former (purpose), engendering a stronger, more enduring attachment (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1994) or ownership of it. Similarly, by reminding them that they are helping to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems through their jobs, purpose also makes salient that employees are an integral, contributing part of a larger ethical movement.
Support for our assertion that employees’ perceptions that they work for a purpose-driven company will strengthen their SO also comes from the literature on work meaningfulness and the role of sensemaking therein (see Rosso et al., 2010 for review). A large body of work points to people’s fundamental quest for meaning in their work lives (e.g., Cartwright & Holmes, 2006). Because this meaning is typically rooted in the self-esteem, social connectedness, and self-efficacy employees derive from one or more aspects of their work (Rosso et al., 2010), psychological ownership, such as that of sustainability, can be construed as a pivotal, possibly volitional mechanism for generating work meaningfulness. Now, employees’ acceptance of sustainability as a valid source of self-identity and belongingness-based work meaning is likely to occur through the process of sensemaking, or their scanning, reading, and interpretation of relevant cues to that effect from their work environment (Weick, 1995). Clearly, the general ethic of care (Carmeli et al., 2017) towards its stakeholders embodied and signaled by a company’s purpose is likely to facilitate such sensemaking, encouraging SO in employees’ quest for work meaningfulness. In support of this sensegiving function of purpose in fostering SO, Kempster et al. (2011) propose that purpose, cascaded by leadership, seeks to manage employees’ meanings toward achieving good for humans (e.g., sustaining communities, reducing an organization’s carbon footprint). As well, in the context of the adoption of an educational innovation, Ketelaar et al. (2013) show that teachers take psychological ownership of the innovation, but only when they view it through a sensemaking lens. In short, then, purpose enables employees to make sense of the extent to which sustainability provides them with work meaningfulness through the fulfillment of key personal and social needs, triggering SO.
SO, in turn, is likely to be the key driver of ESB, encompassing a variety of behaviors, undertaken all across the organization—from the mailroom (e.g., recycling paper) to the boardroom (e.g., allocating resources to sustainability). SO is likely to make employees feel positively about sustainability, view it as part of their extended self (Belk, 1988), and trigger a sense of responsibility toward it, making them more likely to commit to sustainability, both affectively and cognitively (Liu et al., 2012), and engage in ESB even when these are not necessarily part of the formal job expectations (Organ, 1988). In sum:
Employees’ perceptions that they work for a purpose-driven company increase ESB. This purpose-ESB relationship is mediated by sustainability ownership (SO).
The Moderating Role of Sustainability Autonomy
An important aspect of employees’ jobs is the degree to which they have autonomy over decisions pertaining to their job responsibilities (Chan & Lam, 2011). We proffer the more specific notion of sustainability autonomy (i.e., SA), defined as the degree to which a company allows its employees substantial freedom, independence, and discretion in incorporating sustainability into their jobs, as a key enabler of the purpose-SO-ESB link.
Why might this be so? First, research in organizational behavior points to specific job characteristics, such as autonomy and participative decision making, as drivers of a perceived sense of control, producing in turn greater job and organizational ownership (Pierce et al., 2009). Perceived control, which fulfills the need for efficacy as noted above, is the perception that one is able—through ability, resources, and opportunities—to realize desirable outcomes through one’s own actions (Liu et al., 2012). Thus, allowing employees significant freedom or autonomy in terms of how they can incorporate sustainability into their jobs is likely to empower them and enhance their feelings of control over sustainability (Piccolo et al., 2010).
Since the effect of purpose on ESB is theorized to occur primarily through the fulfillment of two (i.e., self-identity and belongingness) of the three needs underlying the link between purpose and SO, we argue that allowing the fulfillment of the remaining need—efficacy—will allow a fuller expression of purpose on SO to manifest. Put differently, we expect the three needs to act synergistically in driving SO, with the effects of the two needs underlying the purpose-SO link amplified when the third need (i.e., efficacy) is also better satisfied, through greater SA. Our assertion is supported by a recent strand within the psychological ownership literature which posits that “the three determinants of psychological ownership are complementary (rather than just additive), and, therefore, interact to produce the state of psychological ownership” (Townsend et al., 2009, p. 8).
More generally, one of the most fundamental insights to emerge from employee psychology (see Kellner et al., 2019) is that for effective behavior, performance, or goal achievement, employees need to not only be motivated, but to also have the ability and opportunity to perform the behavior or achieve the goal. Given that SA grants employees both the ability and opportunity to perform the sustainability behaviors in which their company’s purpose motivates them to engage, we can expect the effect of purpose on SO to be stronger in the presence of greater SA. In essence, while purpose motivates employees to help fulfill the company’s ethical manifesto (i.e., provides the “why” of sustainability), this motivating impetus is likely to be greater when job autonomy enables ownership by giving employees control over the way in which they integrate sustainability into their daily jobs (i.e., the “how to” of sustainability).
The effect of employees’ perceptions that they work for a purpose-driven company on ESB is moderated by their perceptions of SA. Specifically, the mediated link between purpose and ESB via SO is stronger for employees with higher levels of perceived SA than for those with lower levels.
Individual Differences in Responsiveness: The Role of Moral Identity Centrality
It is likely that not all employees will respond alike to sustainability-related aspects of their work environment. Specifically, if indeed both purpose and ESB are ethical constructs and their link is an ethics-based one, then the extent to which purpose and SO produce ESB should depend on the importance to employees of belonging to an ethical organization, in part by engaging in ethical actions for it (Flannery & May, 2000). Some pertinent research (Moore et al., 2019) suggests that employees are likely to vary in the extent to which being a moral person (e.g., caring, compassionate, fair, generous) is central to their overall sense of self or identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002; Edinger et al., 2019). Moreover, the more central being a moral person is to an employee’s identity (i.e., high moral identity centrality or MIC), the more likely it is that this aspect of their identity will be salient at work and, thus, interact with the contextual influences in the workplace to affect their ethical behaviors. In line with this, a recent study documents a positive link between MIC and sustainability behaviors, at least in the consumer domain (e.g., green products; Wu & Yang, 2018) due to the greater feelings of responsibility for environmental damage among high MIC consumers.
Building on this research, we propose a three-way interaction between employees’ perceptions of the company’s purpose, SA, and MIC such that the interactive effects of purpose and SA on sustainability behaviors via SO will be stronger for employees who are higher on MIC than those who are lower. This is because higher MIC employees will not only be more aware of and attuned to aspects of their jobs that allow and encourage them to be more moral (i.e., greater moral attentiveness or reflectiveness; Reynolds, 2008) by engaging in ESB, but also be more sensitive to company and job characteristics pertaining to sustainability (i.e., purpose and SA) in their sensemaking efforts. Specifically, when such employees perceive their company to have a purpose (i.e., the motivation) and feel that they have the necessary autonomy to incorporate sustainability into their work life (i.e., the opportunity and ability), they will be especially likely to take ownership and act to a greater extent relative to their counterparts for whom being moral is less central to their sense of self. Thus, formally:
The interactive relationship of employees’ purpose perceptions and SA on ESB via SO is moderated by MIC. Specifically, the interaction is stronger for employees with higher levels of MIC as compared to those with lower levels.