How can HR have a greater impact in creating and driving a sustainable culture?

Susan_CamberisHaving spent over a decade in Human Resources, with a growing interest in sustainability, the questions I have increasingly found myself asking these questions:

  • What is HR’s role in sustainability?
  • How can HR have a greater impact in creating and driving a sustainable culture?
  • How can the HR function better equip itself to lead change in this important area?

While HR still maintains the responsibility for hiring, firing, compensation, administering benefits and managing compliance, many of these responsibilities (in total or in part) can be, and often are, outsourced. Where HR truly adds value is to align human capital strategy with business strategy. This means partnering with senior business leaders, assuming ownership for building an excellent talent pipeline, and engaging in and driving conversations about the business.


Often overlooked when it comes to developing and implementing sustainability strategy, HR professionals are ideally suited to help identify what Andrew Savitz and Karl Weber first referred to as the “sweet spot” – the place where business interests overlap with environmental and social interests (see The Triple Bottom Line [2006]).

Leading HR—and Sustainability

HR leaders are uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in sustainability for three important reasons:

  1. HR is experienced at driving cross-functional, organizational transformation initiatives with broad scope and complexity. Sustainability represents a complex set of issues, with challenges that affect the entire organization and all aspects of people management (e.g., processes, engagement, structure). Few, if any, other functional areas have an enterprise-wide perspective or experience to drive enterprise-wise initiatives with the same level of complexity.
  2. HR is the steward of organizational culture and resident change management expert. In most organizations, HR is responsible for helping to shape (or reshape), developing competencies that align to and support, and measuring employee engagement related to, an organization’s culture. HR is also the function that helps others manage through change, thereby becoming the “resident change management expert.” Both these aspects are critical to driving systemic change.
  3. HR understands changing workforce demographics and their effect on organizational capacity to attract and retain top talent. This may be HR’s greatest “secret weapon” when it comes to connecting talent and sustainability. Increasingly, millennials are interested in making a difference through their work. As recently cited in the February 2014 edition of Talent Management magazine, in a Universum survey of 65,000+ undergrads, “to feel I am serving a greater good” was reported as the #3 career goal (preceded only by work-life balance and security/stability in job). HR leaders and organizations that appreciate and can meaningfully take advantage of shifting attitudes and values will be better positioned in the months and years ahead. And HR professionals who can help facilitate and accelerate this positioning will increasingly be viewed as strategic assets.

So, what now?

Connecting Culture, Human Resources & Sustainability Strategy

In order to be effective catalysts for change, HR leaders need to understand what sustainability means to business strategy how to integrate sustainability into their own business practices, and how to link and measure the outcomes related to culture and employee engagement.

You can start today by doing three things:

  1. Take an inventory. What are you already doing to effect positive change related to issues important to employees (e.g., offering competitive pay and benefits, training opportunities, etc.)? Recent studies – as outlined in Talent, Transformation, and the Triple Bottom Line (Savitz and Weber, 2013) – suggest there is a “halo effect” between perceived efforts to treat employees well and perceptions of social responsibility. If you’re already focusing on efforts to improve the health and happiness of your employees, you may be doing more than you realize to create a sustainable culture.
  2. Ask key questions. Start by asking questions to educate yourself: What’s already happening in the company? What are the company’s sustainability priorities and goals? How are we involving the organization? What can HR, as a function, be doing to make the processes more sustainable?
    Help your leadership team understand how the workforce is changing and what it means for them. Pose some questions to help the team think through the linkages to the business strategy: What is our organizational “sweet spot?” What type of organizational competencies do we need to have today (and will be needed in the future) to avail ourselves of business opportunities related to this sweet spot? How can we align our employment brand more fully with these efforts?
  3. Be a leader. If your organization does not already have a sustainability leader or department, talk to your senior leader about how you might take a leadership role in this area. Start a conversation with your team and the broader team.

Start where there’s energy.

Start where you are.

Start today.

This article was originally published on CSRwire
Susan Camberis is a Talent Management and HR leader who is passionate about learning and sustainability. From 1999 to 2013, Susan held various HR roles with Baxter Healthcare Corporation. Susan is particularly interested in how companies are engaging employees and developing talent while becoming more sustainable. She is an active member of Net Impact and tweets @susancamberis. Connect with her on LinkedIn.