This blog was featured in Forbes.com.
You want your company culture to be one of giving back - and it would be nice if you could get back as much as you give back. That is to say, engagement in your employee giving and volunteer programs is just a starting point: you’d also like to see your employees engaged on the clock. You keep hearing that corporate volunteering and giving creates engagement at work, but you remain skeptical.
Well, skeptic be gone. Kohl’s presents a test case for how you can have a workforce of engaged employees on and off the clock.
As one of the nation’s largest retailers, Kohl’s is in a powerful position to leverage its size to create community impact. The company has sought to engage employees, whom it calls “associates,” while also coordinating volunteer initiatives company wide. Coordinating these efforts is just what the organization hopes to do with its Associates in Action program.
Engagement is difficult in any business, but in the world of retail - where employees tend to be more casual and on the lookout for their next gig - it’s a particularly thorny challenge. But Kohl’s has been able to see noticeable results when it comes to both helping out and keeping employees engaged. And this has been accomplished primarily through encouraging and trusting the initiative of managers and associates.
“There is a direct correlation on engaged associates,” notes Jon Grosso, EVP and Director of Store Operations. “Engaged associates deliver better customer service, we retain them longer, and they drive better sales.” Kohl’s knows this for a fact because they track their employee engagement every year, putting to rest any questions about how engaged employees benefit the organization. “Once you participate and get that feeling of satisfaction, you don’t go back,” says Grosso. And this satisfaction doesn’t just end with the completion of a donation drive or a volunteer event. “You just forward it and you get involved even more.”
Kohl’s started the program in 2001 and has seen impressive participation, with nearly 700,000 employees volunteering their time at over 100,000 different events. That’s more than two million hours of time donated and over $63 million raised for local nonprofits. Still, Grosso thinks that while the numbers are important, “We also want to humanize what we’re doing.”
The coordinated efforts of Kohl’s send a clear message that volunteering and donating are a part of the company culture. Managers often take the lead, with one or two associates helping to rally the troops to the latest cause. The results? Nationwide participation. Just in the month of April, for example, in recognition of Earth Day and National Volunteer Week, the full company participated in “National Go Green” volunteer events. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say that every store participates,” says Grosso, “We’ve had every store in the nation do some kind of green event for the last three years in a row.”
Employee volunteer programs follow guidelines, including that any benefited organization is a 501(3)c and that activities serve the company's overall philanthropic platform of kids' health and education initiatives. Beyond that, Kohl’s’ events are entirely autonomous, allowing for a wide array of community involvement depending on what moves the associates and managers in any given place. Sometimes employees are appealed to directly, but only on a strictly no-pressure basis, where engaged employees try to convince other employees of the importance of getting involved in this or that cause. All of this contributes to an overall culture of engagement.
In addition to allowing their associates the flexibility to volunteer in the ways that they see fit, the company uses an obvious but underutilized area to get people on board for volunteering: the break room. “We have locations in our associate lounges to post photos from events,” says Grosso, which help employees find the right place to concentrate their efforts. Furthermore, “if there are letters from different organizations or classes, we post those as well. It’s not uncommon for them to send us some kind of thanks.”
This visibility underscores the real effect when associates volunteer and illustrates that the end of an event is not the end of their assistance to the community. Each event has lasting positive consequences, and showing what they are is a part of the culture of volunteerism at Kohl’s.
With the notoriously high turnover rate of retail, Kohl’s’ nourishing of a giving culture helps to recruit employees, keep them engaged and retain top talent. “The benefits are not just limited to recruiting on college campuses,” Grosso notes. “This culture resonates with our associates who have been with us for 20 or 30 years, and it cuts across all age groups and demographics. There is really no limit to the kind of engagement we see from these efforts.”
This kind of community impact program engages customers as well as associates, when Kohl’s offers programs that reach out to shoppers. “I wouldn’t call it cross marketing,” says Grosso. “But it certainly helps the brand.”