Human Resources and Sustainability

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the role of human resource management in advancing sustainability
Two women in business attire are standing behind a desk and talking to one another.

Given the business case for sustainability, what can a human resource management do to advance sustainability within their organization?Here are four key actions, derived from the Human Resources chapter of The Business Guide to Sustainability, to move the discussion forward:[1]

  • Introduce the topic to senior executives: If senior management isn’t thinking about sustainability, present the business case and related resources or arrange an executive briefing.
  • Align HR systems to embed sustainability in the culture: Incorporate sustainability into job descriptions, selection and evaluation criteria, employee orientation and training, evaluation and compensation.
  • Model sustainable practices: Assess HR impacts and make changes to practices and procedures—for example, recycling and leveraging technology to minimize paper use and waste—to set an example and get a sense for what’s possible.
  • Measure the impact: Incorporate sustainability initiatives in existing measurement systems in order to quantify the benefits and track progress.

Hitchcock and Willard also identify classic change management mistakes to avoid, including:

  • Spray and pray training—Providing training without an associated plan and systems for implementation.
  • The big black hole—Conducting training and soliciting implementation ideas that are never assessed, acknowledged or acted upon.
  • Language hijack—Failure to recognize that terms such as “environmentalist” or “climate change” may evoke different responses, from engagement to resistance.

Practice Question

As is true at an organizational performance level, Human Resource management stands to benefit from a successful implementation.Sustainability positively impacts employee recruitment, engagement and retention. To illustrate, here are 3 key takeaways from a 2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement study:[2]

  • 64% of Millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work
  • 88% of Millennials say their job is more fulfilling when they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues and
  • 83% of Millennials would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues.

For perspective, millennials currently represent 50% of the workforce and are projected to constitute 75% by 2025.[3]

  1. Hitchcock, Darcy and Marsha Willard. The Business Guide to Sustainability. Earthscan. 2006
  2. "2016 Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study." Cone. 2016. Accessed July 18, 2019.
  3. Donston-Miller, Debra. "Workforce 2020: What You Need to Know Now." Forbes. May 5, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2019.