Sustainability—essentially, doing business without harming people or the planet—can affect company culture and behavior in many ways, from recruiting and employee engagement initiatives to training, customer interactions and even the business brand and value propositions.
Thus, sustainability is emerging as a people issue—and, as such, a human resource issue. But HR professionals may not be fully prepared to lead organizational sustainability efforts.
Those assessments were expressed at a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Executive Roundtable Symposium on the profession’s role in building and implementing corporate sustainability strategies.
Symposium participants—HR and sustainability leaders from around the world—generally agreed that HR, while it need not be the organizational owner of the concept, should have the knowledge required to take the lead in the people dimensions of sustainability.
The profession must be out front in creating a compelling business case for putting sustainability on corporate agendas and for developing strategies that address sustainability. HR’s critical role will be in driving the culture changes required for organizations to make sustainability a priority.
But this road may not be easy for HR. If sustainability represents a way of thinking and acting that must permeate the entire organization and its ways of doing business, it needs leadership from the top to take root. Such leadership is in short supply, according to some symposium participants.
Many said profit-driven senior executives still see sustainability as “nice-to-do” rather than a “need-to-do.” Other corporate leaders attach sustainability efforts to public relations professionals; they don’t integrate sustainability into overall business strategies or recognize employees’ role in sustainability initiatives.
Although sustainability might present an opportunity for HR professionals, some participants questioned HR’s readiness to lead. They were concerned that HR professionals might not yet have sufficient knowledge of sustainability issues to formulate a business case.
However, sustainability as an HR issue is gaining momentum. In the recently published SHRM Workplace Forecast, HR professionals identified investing in greener ways of working as the most common action that their organizations were planning for the coming years in response to broader trends.
For an issue that only a few years ago was not even on many business leaders’ radars, sustainability has become an important driver of business change, and it appears sure to be even more important in the years ahead.
HR professionals will undoubtedly be part of this change, but experts are not certain whether they will lead—or follow.
The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.