(38) Sustainability

Human Resource Instruction and Sustainability

Human Resources for Sustainability

Human resources and sustainable development

When sustainability meets human resources


Human Resources: How to Support the Change Process and Bolster Employee Commitment

While at first sight, it may not seem to be the case, human resource professionals are actually in a good position to influence the sustainability of an organization. When taken together, the practices and strategies we are addressing in these texts amount to an organizational change initiative, not unlike those from the last few decades, particularly Total Quality Management, process improvement, customer satisfaction and participative management. However, human resource (HR) professionals have been slow to pursue sustainability, in large part because they don’t understand how much they have to offer.

We can identify with this problem. We too come from an organizational development background and when we encountered the concept of sustainability as a business issue in Harvard Business Review in the mid-1990s, we had an epiphany: by showing our clients how to be more productive, in many cases we had also shown them how to deplete the world’s resources better, faster, cheaper. This was not the legacy we had in mind! We also experienced a crisis of confidence. There was no going back to the blissful state of ignorance but yet we couldn’t see the path forward. What did we know about sustainability? Weren't we biologists or chemical engineers? What did we have to offer? What we’ve discovered on our journey is that implementing sustainability is a lot like implementing any other corporate change initiative. As an internal consultant, you need to get up to speed on certain concepts and terms, but the most troublesome issues most organizations face are not technical ones (do we use this chemical or that?) but concern organizational change: how does sustainability fit with our corporate strategy? Where should we begin our efforts? Who needs to be involved and how can we engage them? What framing is going to be most helpful? What structures do we need in place to manage the effort? At what point do we ‘go public’ with our efforts, internally and externally?

It’s ironic that while we tiptoed into this field, we have never felt more valued for the contribution we bring. Technical people, including scientists and engineers, the same ones who roll their eyes when you try to engage them in a team-building exercise, have practically begged for our help. As one engineer put it, ‘To do this work, you have to bring together a good cross-section of people, all of whom have their own opinions. Pretty soon, someone gets angry and then I don’t know what to do.’ Many human resource professionals have excellent facilitation and conflict management skills, exactly the skills that others in the sustainability field lack.


Increasingly, sustainability is becoming an important recruitment and retention strategy:

• Youth: MonsterTRAK.com, a career website for students and entry-level employees found that 92 percent would be more inclined to work for a company that is environmentally responsible. 80 percent of young professionals wanted a job that directly improved the environment.

• Canadian workers: In a similar study in Canada, Monster.ca found that 78 percent of employees surveyed would gladly quit their jobs for a more environmentally friendly employer. In the same poll, 81 percent were less than impressed with their current employer’s performance in that regard.

• US workers: An Adecco USA survey of employees in the US found that 36 percent would be more inclined to work for a green company, 59 percent think their company should be more environmentally friendly (a desire that is more pronounced with women and young adults), and 68 percent of adults think companies’ actions don’t always match their green hype.

Of course, improved social conditions in the workplace also help with retention: on-site day care, flexible work schedules, and incentives to bike to work are examples of programs HR can implement to contribute to the sustainability effort.

Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a meaningful mission. We remember talking to an employee at a lumber mill who used to dodge questions about where he worked. After his employer adopted sustainability, he became proud to tell people about his work. Many executives have found that sustainability motivates people in a way that no other organizational change program has. Programmes like total quality, Lean, Six Sigma and self-directed work teams focused on making the organization better.

Sustainability is about making the world better. It gives people a way to address their latent concerns (about climate change, toxics, poverty, etc.). These seem like overwhelming problems and many retreats into denial or learned helplessness. The psychic toll of this often goes unacknowledged but it is significant. When you give people permission to use their job as a catalyst for positive, transformative change, many end up with a passionate calling, not just a career.

Be sure to talk to your facilities people as well because green building practices have

been found to improve productivity. Based on a study of 12 retrofits of federal buildings

in the US, these remodel resulted in a 29 percent boost in employee satisfaction while

also reducing water and energy use as well as greenhouse gasses.

Human resources are often the department which provides organizational development advice about how to launch and sustain new initiatives.

As we consulted with organizations, we found many organizations making unnecessary implementation mistakes that will be familiar to anyone with an organizational development background:

Spray-and-pray training. A manufacturer of wood products trained all their employees in The Natural Step framework and then sat back, waiting for miracles to happen. Of course,

many people forgot what they were taught since there was no planned way to use the knowledge immediately. Few ideas were suggested until the organization put into place a more structured way to involve staff.

The big black hole. Another company trained all employees on sustainability and asked employees to share ideas about actions the organization could take. These ideas were collected but there was no process to assess them, act on them or give feedback to employees about them. So for about two years, the ideas disappeared into the black hole, leaving employees wondering just how serious the organization was.

A rose by any other name. An organization based in ‘Ecotopia’ (Oregon) found out the hard way that their employees on the east coast of the US didn’t have the same connotations for such terms as ‘environmentalist’. Rather than building excitement with

their training, they were deepening the resistance to the concept.

If you don’t know where you’re going ... A boss in a property development firm got the sustainability bug and hired someone to lead the effort. However, the top management team had never had a conversation about how sustainability fitted into their business strategy. At this point in time, they have got through two sustainability coordinators, both of whom left in frustration.

Unrequited expectations. The owner of a construction firm got his employees too excited about sustainability. Employees started leaving because they felt the company wasn’t changing fast enough.

You should recognize these change management mistakes. They are generic problems. Had these organizations involved an HR professional in their plans, they might have avoided these unnecessary complications.

So don’t be intimidated if you don’t yet know the difference between PVC and PBTs. It doesn’t matter. Your skills are critical to carrying out sustainability. It’s your job to be the generalist, the change consultant, the process designer, the meeting facilitator. These are all things you know how to do. For the technical sustainability topics you don’t already have under your belt, take a class, read a book or hire a sustainability expert as a shadow consultant. You’ll pick it up quickly.

Sustainability is at its core an issue requiring organizational change and cultural change.

Edgar Shein, the author of Leadership and Organizational Culture, identifies five primary mechanisms that affect culture:

1. What leaders pay attention to, measure and reward?

2. How leaders react to critical incidents;

3. What leaders deliberately role-model;

4. Criteria for allocating rewards and status; and

5. Criteria for selecting, recruiting, promoting and firing.

Note how many of these mechanisms are the responsibility of human resources, either overtly through HR systems or through management training and coaching. So HR is key to making sustainability ‘stick’.


We see the role of the human resources director and department falling into the following categories:

• Introduce the concept to top executives. If your senior managers are not yet well versed in sustainability, assess when the time is right and then find the best way to introduce the topic.

• Consult on the implementation. Help put in place a plan that has a high probability of success.

• Align human resource systems. Incorporate sustainability into your HR systems (eg orientation/training, hiring, reviews, pay, benefits) to reinforce the organization’s efforts.

• Model appropriate behaviors. Assess your own impacts and make changes to your meeting management, paper processing, and other tasks.

• Measure the benefits. Enhance your existing measurement systems to track the return on your sustainability initiatives.

Introduce the concept to top executives

Because the HR department often includes an organizational development function and may facilitate strategic and operational sessions with top management, HR professionals are often in a good position to introduce new trends to senior management. Unfortunately, few in HR are well versed in sustainability. Remember, you don’t have to be the expert.  Your role may be as simple as pointing out articles about sustainability as a trend and inviting management to explore this as one of many interesting global trends that could affect their business.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

• Route a reprint of a sustainability-related article from a respected management publication (eg Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review or Business Week).

• At a management meeting, show a video related to sustainability (eg ‘The Next Industrial Revolution’) and use it as a discussion starter.

• In preparation for a strategic planning session, suggest to management that sustainability should be one of a handful of emerging trends they should examine.

• Bring in executives from other respected organizations to talk about why they have adopted sustainability as a strategic issue and how they use it to improve their performance.


Here are some of our favorite articles to introduce executives to sustainability:

Senge, Peter M., Benyamin B. Lichtenstein, Katrin Kaeufer, Hilary Bradbury and John S.

Carroll (2007) ‘Collaborating for Systemic Change’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter,Vol 48, No 2, pp44–53.

Senge, Peter and Goran Carstedt (2001) ‘Innovating our Way to the Next Industrial Revolution’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter. This article provides a good explanation of why sustainability is going to be the real ‘new economy’ (versus the dot-com version of the not-so-new economy). This would be an excellent summary to give to executives unfamiliar with the issue as it includes most of the basic concepts (eg natural capitalism), quotes from big-name executives, differentiates eco-efficiencies from sustainability, and recounts some good profitability stories.

Hall, Jeremy and Harrie Vrendenburg (2003) ‘The Challenges of Innovating for Sustainable Development’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall. This article helps to explain why sustainability can be viewed as cutting both ways. ‘From a company’s perspective, innovation can be a primary source of the sustained competitive advantage as well as a significant source of risk, competitive disruption, and failure ... The additional interacting pressures from social and environmental concerns make SDI [sustainable development initiatives] more complex than conventional market-driven innovation.’ Monsanto’s GMO debacle is given as an example. The article also explains how Suncor and Transalta have managed that risk successfully.

‘Global Sustainability and Creative Destruction of Industries’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 1999. This article does a good job of distinguishing green strategies from sustainability ones. For example, green strategies focus on incremental improvement in existing products, processes, suppliers and customers, while sustainability involves focusing on emerging technologies, markets, partners and customers - a list which suggests more emphasis on discontinuous creative destruction/restructuring of industries. It also segments the global market into three parts: consumer economy (1 billion people), emerging markets (2 billion people) and survival economy (3 billion people). Depending on which market you’re in, you should be asking different questions and focusing on different results.

The ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’ study, performed for the UN by scientists from all over the world, summarizes the main issues. The 31-page overview report ‘Living Beyond our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-Being’ nicely covers the global challenges we face, www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.aspx.


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