The Crucial — and Underappreciated — Role of HR in Sustainability

Success in sustainability depends on hiring and rewarding employees who commit to it. So why isn’t HR more involved?

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Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
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Companies that perform well with respect to sustainability can be distinguished from those that don’t by an array of organizational design features. High performers have a clear strategy guiding their sustainability activities, and the relationship between sustainability and their business strategy is clearly articulated. In addition, the sustainability activities and objectives are coordinated and integrated into their organizational design and management processes. Sustainability is not an add-on; it is a part of how these companies operate.

The human resources function is responsible for designing and managing the key talent management processes of organizations. Given its role in a major management process, what role should the HR function have in the sustainability programs of organizations?

The answer is obvious: HR’s role should be to build sustainability into its own activities and processes so that it can play a major role in the structuring of a company’s sustainability processes, practices and strategies.

The role of HR in corporate sustainability programs has been the focus of relatively little research, but recent research by the Center for Effective Organizations has gathered data from HR executives in major corporations. It provides some interesting insights into the current position of HR functions in organizations with respect to sustainability and points to what HR’s role should be in order for organizations to be effective in regard to sustainability.

Overall, senior HR executives are very positive about the importance of sustainability to them personally. They believe that sustainability activities have a positive impact on shareholder value, employee loyalty, recruitment, and employee engagement, and over 82% believe it can positively affect corporate profits. On the other hand, only 51% say it is an important focus of HR in their company.

HR’s Role in Sustainability Programs: What It Is, What It Should Be

When asked about the role of HR in their company’s sustainability program and activities, 3% of HR executives say HR has the primary responsibility and only 1% say it should have the primary responsibility. A larger number (13%) do feel it should be a leader, but only 5% think it currently is. This finding is in agreement with data gathered from board members and senior executives.

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Topics

Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
See All Articles in This Section

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Comment (1)
eric.alderspruce
I am a consultant with a Masters in OD and Sustainability. In my experience, HR is a limited subset of OD, focused typically on the hard aspects of managing people as a resource. Most HR people are middle management or secretarial in reality, only the senior HR people have a broad enough perspective and power to have the motivation to learn about sustainability's impact, and to effect change within the mindsets of the senior and middle leadership in business units. For HR people to impact sustainability, they need to a broader perspective and influence, at the middle and lower levels. So what we are really talking about is senior level HR, who then educate, empower and reward sustainability focused efforts from lower level HR people.  How do we effect this kind of change?