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The environment; an emerging HR consideration…

As HR professionals we are often cast as umpires in our workplaces. Rightly or wrongly we are seen as arbitrators and the keepers of fair play. This is not surprising really when you look at the nature of our responsibilities:

  • Values and behaviours frameworks
  • Performance management practices
  • Restructuring and change management support
  • Capability development frameworks
  • Award interpretations and EBA negotiations
  • Reward and recognition policies, etc., etc.

Unlike sales, or finance or marketing, manufacturing or many other functions, our purpose is to create an environment that will bring out the best in our people. We need to build structures and systems, design policies and processes and facilitate a workplace culture that empowers people to successfully drive our business operations and deliver value to our customers and business partners.

And we know that people don’t leave their own values, interests and concerns at home when they come to the office. We also know that business is not conducted in a vacuum – it’s an integral part of society.

So we strive for fair outcomes, outcomes that reflect the mores of our society, recognise and reward contribution, respect individuals’ needs and circumstances and drive business results.

Which brings me to my point.

As HR practitioners should we consider environmental sustainability in our policy and practice deliberations?

I suggest that there are at least 5 compelling reasons why we should include environmental sustainability in our policy and practices:

  1. It demonstrates the values of the organisation to all stakeholders and that those values extend beyond just short term returns.
  2. It will attract potential employees and engage current employees.
  3. It shows our employees and other interested stakeholders that we care about people, not just our employees, clients, suppliers and the like. All people.
  4. It makes business sense. It will reward us for being smart, diligent and ethical.
  5. We know it’s the right thing to do and being a leader in this area rather than a follower can create necessary momentum at little cost. Many companies recognised this through paid parental leave. Now it’s legislated. That’s what popular opinion can do.

Let me expand on those 5 points. Here is the most widely used definition of sustainability, from the World Commission on Environment and Development:

‘Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Meeting our needs without compromising the ability future generations to meet their needs. That is what it is all about, including a long term view on what is in the best interests of the broader community, being fair to future generations, being ethical.

As a societal policy concern, environmental sustainability is right up there with the demographic challenges of population growth in the developing world and ageing populations in the developed world. In fact, the impact of population growth and exponentially increasing consumption is one of the key drivers of the emerging sustainability agenda.

Our Australian population is currently being informed of these environmental considerations through government programs and policy initiatives, interest group events and social media. Potential employees are increasingly making decisions on which company to work for based on the organisation’s environmental credentials. This is an important issue for your talent acquisition and EVP strategies now. If everything else is by and large equal, companies with a discernible and morale approach will stand out from the pack.

As an employee engagement initiative, environmental sustainability presents an enormous opportunity. You may already be seeing a demand from employees to understand what the organisation is doing to lessen its negative effects on the environment, and what employees can do to assist. Being part of “the solution” is a very engaging proposition for employees. (See; Millen, “Green key” in HRmonthly, March 2012).

From your external stakeholders’ perspective, companies are increasingly being judged on the breadth and depth of their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) actions. Shareholders and customers are people too, and they make value based judgements every day – think of the rise in ethical investment vehicles and eco savvy consumers.

Finally, from a business perspective; sustainable operations support a sound risk management agenda and increased business efficiencies. Risk management is important, because in this world of fast communication and social media an environmental accident can quickly mean severe reputational damage. And business efficiencies because at the end of the day being sustainable means using less. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover as the waste management hierarchy says. Businesses can make significant savings by bringing an environmental filter to their day-to-day operational decisions.

In summary, as a pragmatic business proposition a sustainability agenda is really very compelling. It is a talent acquisition and employee engagement driver, a CSR must, a risk management consideration and an operational cost savings opportunity.

I believe that environmental sustainability will come to HR’s attention because HR is at the coal face of talent acquisition and employee engagement analysis and because for some individuals – environmentalism is a fairness and equity issue and as mentioned in the introduction, they see HR having a responsibility here.  HR practitioners will need to play a leadership role in their businesses, advocating for environmental agendas and reflecting those agendas in their human resources policies and practices. It is an emerging challenge, but it is also an exciting business opportunity. Indeed, it is an imperative.

Vanessa Rowland

December 2013

Vanessa Rowland is a human resources practitioner having held both generalist and specialist roles in the banking and finance and information technology industries. She is currently principal of Emergent Human Resources where she delivers HR services to corporates and SME in both thefor profit and not for profit arenas.

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