Accelerating HR’s Role in CSR and Sustainability

By Pamela Babcock Oct 29, 2015

NEW YORK CITY—HR professionals need to be more involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability initiatives, but are often left out of the picture. People specializing in these fields should partner with HR to make the most of such programs, and HR should step up its game to get involved, speakers said at the Commit!Forum. The annual event attracts executives to discuss CSR.

“If the goal is to get every employee considering sustainability or corporate social responsibility across every business function, the HR function plays such a key role,” Barry Dambach, former senior director of environmental, health, safety and sustainability for Alcatel-Lucent, told attendees Oct. 21, 2015, at the event, presented by Corporate Responsibility Magazine. Headquartered in France, Alcatel-Lucent is a networking, broadband access and cloud technology specialist.

“As we’ve heard over and over again, some of the success factors were getting [corporate social responsibility] into people’s performance reviews and objectives—and who owns those processes? HR typically does, so they’ve got to be an active business partner,” Dambach added.

Panel member Jeana Wirtenberg, president and CEO of Transitioning to Green and author of Building a Culture for Sustainability: People, Planet, and Profits in a New Green Economy (Praeger 2014), said that while sustainability has finally arrived on the HR agenda, there’s “a huge gap in how HR should be, can be and must be engaged in executing its role.” Transitioning to Green is a global sustainability management consulting firm based in Montville, N.J.

And that’s a big problem, since CSR initiatives often succeed or fail based on the actions of everyday employees, such as factory workers, customer service representatives, and marketing and salespeople. Corporate responsibility and sustainability should be multidisciplinary and embedded in every function, from HR to the supply chain, finance, marketing, product development, research and development, and more, Wirtenberg said.

Culture Is Key

Creating a culture that embraces corporate responsibility is key, and that’s why HR is so important. Areas that HR oversees—attracting, recruiting, developing, engaging and retaining talent—need to be aligned and “can be fueled through corporate social responsibility,” Wirtenberg said.

“People are the ones that make sustainability happen, and we forget about that,” Wirtenberg said. “It’s not just about the environment when we use the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘corporate social responsibility.’ It’s all about the people.”

HR also often oversees learning and development, another area of importance since training programs related to corporate responsibility also help employees broaden their job skills and gain valuable experience while making the world a better place.

HR is a critical partner when it comes to using corporate responsibility to boost employee engagement, as studies have shown that employees are looking for purpose and meaning in their work but few are psychologically connected to their jobs, Wirtenberg said.

Dambach concurred. He noted that standards such as the Dow Jones Global Sustainability Index, the United Nations Global Compact and Social Accountability International SA8000 cut across economic, social and environmental issues. And many of these standards have an HR impact, addressing things like professional development, talent retention, employee engagement, diversity, equality, and heath and safety, to name a few.

What Alcoa Is Doing

During the session, Laurie Roy, director of human resources for corporate resource units for Alcoa Inc., talked about how the manufacturing giant is engaging employees and helping development talent with corporate social responsibility programs. With its corporate center in Pittsburgh and global center in New York City, Alcoa is a global leader in lightweight metals technology, engineering and manufacturing, employing 60,000 people in 30 countries.

Alcoa has a longstanding partnership with the international Earthwatch Institute, in a program where Alcoa volunteers work alongside Earthwatch scientists on critical environmental and sustainability research projects that address issues the world faces today.

“In addition to contributing to knowledge, they really are getting that hands-on field experience that can help them understand how their daily lives are impacting sustainability both at work and at home,” Roy noted.

Each year, 25 Alcoa employees from 10 countries participate across various regions after being chosen through “a very selective application process,” Roy said. After completing the three-week environmental education expeditions, employees return to the workplace and share the knowledge they gained on the project with their colleagues.

“This aligns very well with our business and sustainable practices,” Roy explained.

How HR Can Accelerate Change

In an e-mail interview after the session with HR News, Wirtenberg offered ways for HR professionals to accelerate their role in sustainability.

First, they should work to build their knowledge, influence and competencies in areas such as “helping non-HR leaders see the connection between environmental and social responsibility and talent management,” and understanding and helping non-HR leaders see how HR investments can drive a sustainability strategy.

“Talent management may be the lead leverage point for HR,” but unfortunately, Wirtenberg said, in assessments, some of the lowest scores for HR leaders often relate to helping other executives see the links between sustainability strategy and HR investments.

That’s true even in those organizations “most deeply involved in sustainability,” she added.

In the end, Wirtenberg said, HR should partner not only with corporate social responsibility and sustainability heads, but also with the CEO, chief financial officer and chief operations officer “to make explicit the inextricable link between sustainability and talent management, business results and profitability.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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