Employees and sustainability: the role of incentives

Kimberly K. Merriman, Sagnika Sen, Andrew J. Felo, Barrie E. Litzky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Purpose – Organizational sustainability has become a priority on many corporate agendas. How to integrate sustainability efforts throughout the organization, however, remains a challenge. The purpose of this paper is to examine two factors that potentially enhance incentive effects on employee engagement in environmental objectives: explicit organizational values for sustainability and the performance objective’s complementarity with incented financial objectives. Design/methodology/approach – The authors employed a quasi-experimental design in which participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions, including a status quo condition against which the treatments were contrasted. Participants (n=400) were comprised of a cross-section of US employees from a wide range of occupations and industries. A post hoc qualitative analysis provided additional insights. Findings – Incentive effects were enhanced (i.e. preference for the environmental objective was significantly higher) when the environmental project offered complementary benefits for financial objectives, but not when organization values emphasized sustainability. An entrenched status quo bias for financial performance was discerned among a subset of the sample. Research limitations/implications – Management scholars must pay close attention to the role of implicit norms for financial performance when investigating employee engagement in organizational sustainability efforts. From an applied perspective, framing sustainability objectives to emphasize financial benefits consistent with a financial mission may maximize employee engagement. Originality/value – This study contributes to understanding of organizational sustainability efforts at the individual employee level of analysis, a conspicuously small part of the organizational research surrounding this topic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)820-836
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Managerial Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 9 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Applied Psychology
  • Management Science and Operations Research
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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