What If HR Owned Sustainability?

by Nate Young

Brightworks’ Education Coordinator

If you believe conventional wisdom, Human Resources (HR) doesn’t warrant a seat at the table for discussions about sustainability. Unfortunately, this is one instance where conventional wisdom is misguided.  The HR department not only deserves a seat, it might be the appropriate group to take charge of sustainability programs.

Depending on the firm, sustainability is managed by any one or more different departments. For instance, consumer-facing companies often recognize sustainability as a significant brand builder and so direct sustainability initiatives through the marketing department. Manufacturing companies that have little public interaction often only understand sustainability as regulation. They put legal departments in charge of compliance and provide little or no forward-looking environmental or social engagement.

So Why HR?

There are multiple reasons to assign HR a central role in your firm’s sustainability initiatives. Here are three:

  1. One important benefit of a robust sustainability platform is the attraction it holds for young, motivated, sustainability-minded professionals. (I’ve talked about attracting great employees before on this blog.) If HR isn’t on board with nurturing that attraction, let alone following through on employees’ professional development, they could find themselves at a distinct disadvantage versus their peer firms when the great young talent goes elsewhere.
  2. When companies go through major structural changes, HR is deeply involved in easing employees through the transition. Given the magnitude of behavioral change that many companies must undergo to effectively integrate the triple bottom line into normal business operations, HR must be involved. In an examination of HR’s role in sustainability initiatives, researchers Hitchcock and Willard found that “because of the lack of HR involvement in most sustainability efforts…many organizations are making many unnecessary implementation mistakes.” Giving HR a seat at the table as new sustainability initiatives are discussed and subsequently rolled out can help ensure employees up and down the organization understand and support the new goals.
  3. HR plays an important role in measurement and verification of corporate initiatives. In many cases, HR departments track employees’ performance according to job descriptions or other predetermined metrics. Having sustainability embedded into performance expectations – and then measured – is critical to ensuring the initiatives are successful. Having HR on board with this crucial aspect from the beginning ensures expectations are clearly articulated and effectively measured.

Back to What If…

While it’s clear the HR department can’t control every sustainability initiative, they should at least be at the table for the discussion. Elaine Lees, Partner and Advisor at Generator Group, an HR consulting firm, summed it up nicely:

Sustainability will be successful in a firm only once it is integrated throughout the life-cycle of every employee; before they are hired, sustainability makes the firm attractive, sustainability is present in the employee orientation process, written into their job description, and followed through in their development plans. These are all aspects of business controlled by HR and they should rightly have a say in their rollout!

Is this HR's role in your sustainability initiatives?

To what extent do you involve HR personnel in the process of “greening” your firm? While I won’t go so far as to guarantee success, I am confident that growing HR’s role gives new sustainability initiatives a better chance at success. And success, after all, is what we are after.

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