Not in the vanguard: HR failing to champion eco-sustainability agenda
10 September 2009 8:42am
HR practitioners should be driving the environmental sustainability movement within their organisations, according to New Zealand business academics, but most are playing too passive a role.
"We believe that HR, due to the core functions it undertakes, has the potential to be a vanguard in the corporate environmental movement," say Auckland University of Technology's Candice Harris and Helen Tregidga in a research paper presented at the World IR Congress in Sydney last week.
"We would suggest, however, that this leadership role is not occurring, and pose the unsettling suggestion that currently HR may in fact constitute a rearguard."
Harris and Tregidga's research - based on comprehensive interviews with 11 senior HR managers from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors - reveals that while the majority of HR practitioners appreciate the business case for sustainability and are aware of their employer's position on the environment, most see themselves as "partners" in green strategies developed outside of their departments.
"All participants felt that the HR function has a role in fostering environmental practices... due to their role as stewards of values, and as skilled communicators," they say.
"However, most were not actively involved in the construction or redefining of the [company's environmental] position."
HR strategies, therefore, are often limited to "weaker" recycling or similar programs, and fail to address some of the "harder environmental questions", such as purchasing and consumption decisions, Harris and Tregidga say.
This "constrained" green HR agenda is inhibiting "the corporate shift from a business-as-usual position to a more environmentally responsible paradigm".
"We urge HR managers to reconsider the implications of what their passive position on the environment could mean," they say, "given their important role for shaping people's behaviour in organisations and beyond."
Address sustainability through core HR functions
Sustainable development can be addressed in a number of core HR functions, such as recruitment, retention and creating incentives for exceptional performance, Harris and Tregidga say.
Through training and development, for instance, HR managers should consider whether:
employees can articulate the organisation's sustainable development principles;
employees understand what the "mission" to be carbon neutral means;
contractors are evaluated for their environmental practices;
the workplace is a key learning site for environmental values and actions; and
green content is integrated into leadership development programs.
"Strong sustainability", Harris and Tregidga say, involves a recognition that business relies on the environment and society for its success - and existence, as opposed to a paradigm where the economy regularly takes precedence over environmental issues.
Other disciplines, such as accounting and operations management, have been active in considering their role in and impact on sustainability, they say, but "the HR field has thus far largely failed to engage".
For many HR practitioners, they say, their concern for the environment is "moderated by a cynicism about their ability" to understand the issues, and by "more urgent priorities related to people".
However, with HR responsible for "driving culture", its proactive engagement with and contribution to green workplace strategies is critical in ensuring "environmental sensibilities" are company-wide.
For more details on Harris and Tregidga's study, click here to see an article on HR Daily's associate publication, Workplace Express.