The key role of HR in sustainability

Sustainability is complex — the entire company must align its goals and actions. Here are seven ways HR departments can foster sustainability in their companies.

Sustainability is a crucial goal for any business. In addition to protecting people and the planet, being more sustainable can boost revenues, increase customer loyalty and drive employee engagement. However, many companies fall short in these initiatives. One reason is that they often overlook HR’s role in sustainability.

Why Sustainability Depends on HR

Many companies fail to deliver on sustainability goals because of a lack of vision. Despite 90% of executives today believing sustainability is important, just 60% have corresponding strategies. Achieving these goals requires a company-wide approach, and any formal strategy that large requires HR’s involvement and direction.

Research also affirms the need for HR’s direct involvement in these initiatives. Organizations show low levels of environmental action when HR isn’t seriously involved in sustainability. In contrast, involved HR departments often promote green behavior beyond required actions in employees.

Sustainability is complex — the entire company must align its goals and actions. That can only happen when HR coordinates policies and agendas across teams and departments.

How to Promote Sustainability in HR

Like sustainability in an organization as a whole, achieving sustainability in HR requires a specific, actionable plan. Here are seven ways HR departments can foster sustainability in their companies.

1. Align Company Policy With Sustainability Goals

The first step in driving sustainability through HR is to ensure the company’s policies align with its ESG objectives. If a business wants to minimize its carbon footprint but requires employees with remote-capable jobs to commute, its own policies hinder its goals. After all, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

HR professionals should meet with board members as they discuss sustainability initiatives. They can then ensure they write new policies or adjust existing ones to reflect the company’s new goals. Without HR’s involvement, business leaders may not catch discrepancies between the two, leading to hampered progress.

Similarly, if a company has sustainability policies in place, HR should ensure company actions align with them. Before launching a new product, service or internal function, leaders should meet with HR to review how it fits into these goals.

2. Attract Sustainability-Minded Talent 

Another important part of sustainability in HR is attracting workers who are passionate about the company’s goals. ESG initiatives work best when employees at every level agree with their direction and actively take part in them. HR can foster that through green-focused hiring practices.

HR departments can attract sustainability-minded employees by outlining the company’s environmental goals and statements in job descriptions. Similarly, job board posts should emphasize that the organization is looking for people passionate about sustainability.

Reflecting sustainability goals in hiring has the added benefit of promoting productivity. A strong organizational culture increases the likelihood of staying with a company, driving engagement and reducing turnover-related costs. As HR departments look for and hire more people who share the business’s environmental views, they’ll build such a culture.

3. Integrate Sustainability Goals Into Onboarding

Similarly, HR professionals should make sustainability training part of the onboarding process. As new hires integrate into the company, they should learn how sustainability plays a role in both day-to-day work and long-term planning.

Onboarding presents an ideal opportunity to implement any environmentally-minded new policies if the company has any. Even if it doesn’t, HR employees can outline the business’s sustainability goals and expectations so new hires understand them as soon as they start.

Making sustainability a more prominent part of onboarding allows HR departments to set expectations and emphasize its importance from the beginning. That makes it easier for the organization to work as a cohesive whole to achieve its goals.

4. Facilitate Necessary Ongoing Training

It’s also important to recognize that sustainability may require training after initial onboarding too. HR must be ready to accommodate this additional learning to ensure the organization can meet its targets.

Embracing sustainability may mean using new digital technologies to replace less efficient, older alternatives. Shifts like that require training to ensure they go smoothly, especially considering the ongoing tech talent shortage, which makes bringing in outside help difficult.

Employees need thorough training, communication ahead of time and ongoing support to make these adjustments. Consequently, they need HR’s help. Without this additional training, sustainability projects may cause excessive disruptions, limiting the initiatives’ ROI.

5. Empower Employees to Take Action

Promoting sustainability in an organization also means ensuring the company uses all of its resources effectively — including its human talent. Employees of all levels may have ideas that can prove useful in improving the business’s sustainability. HR should create a space for them to share these ideas.

HR should ensure employees feel comfortable voicing their opinions on all issues, including sustainability. If they want to go further, they can implement a recommendation system to give workers a dedicated channel for suggesting sustainable initiatives.

Some organizations may consider rewarding employees for ideas that become company policies or actions. Rewards like cash bonuses or extra time off could encourage workers to take a more active role in sustainability, driving positive change.

6. Promote Accountability

In addition to encouraging employees to go above and beyond sustainability policies, HR should keep the company accountable for its goals. Integrating sustainability standards into regular audits lets HR keep the organization on track.

HR should ensure a committee or third party separate from other company functions reviews annual data to compare it to the company’s targets and statements. The department may also want to write a formal policy for what to do if the business falls short. That way, any necessary repercussions won’t involve office politicking or controversy.

Promoting accountability in corporate responsibility is critical to avoiding greenwashing — where a business claims to be more sustainable than it really is. Greenwashing erodes public trust and harms the environment, so these audits are essential.

7. Minimize Paper Documentation

Sustainability in HR can take simpler forms, too. One easy way departments can promote environmentalism is by switching to digital systems to minimize paper documentation.

HR operations typically involve considerable paperwork. When this work involves actual paper, it can contribute to deforestation and related environmental issues. Despite being easily recyclable, paper often contributes to emissions at the end of its life, too, with 17.2 million tons ending up in landfills, where its decomposition releases methane.

Thankfully, moving away from paper is relatively easy. HR departments can embrace electronic signature software and cloud systems to replace paper documentation. These products will incur higher upfront costs, but lower ongoing expenses and resulting environmental benefits can compensate for them.

HR Is Vital for Sustainability in an Organization

Achieving sustainability across an organization is complicated, but it’s much easier with HR involved. HR leaders should recognize this opportunity and bring it to executives’ attention to ensure sustainability initiatives are attainable.

These seven steps will help HR departments in any business promote sustainability. When that happens, company-wide change makes a real difference.

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    29 November 2023


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