Green HR Many HR professionals—like many CEOs, clerks, shareholders and customers—care about the environment. The question is: does that concern have anything to do with their job? At first glimpse the answer is ‘no’, but second thoughts are more revealing. There are a variety of things HR professionals can do to reduce the impact their organization has on the environment.
The obvious place to start is the HR department itself. HR can potentially reduce its own use of paper, lower the office temperature in winter, replace some travel with e-conferencing or even buy “offset credits” from a company like Zerofootprint (www.zerofootprint.net) to counteract any environmental damage the department does. My point here is not to list the options; the staff in the HR department will have more relevant ideas for environment-friendly initiatives than I can provide. The relevance here is that, even in the absence of a broad corporate initiative, the HR department can make positive changes. The fact that most of these changes also save money makes getting buy-in easier.
Sometimes taking action close to home can feel insignificant. However there is an important social phenomenon (and HR ought to be experts in applying social phenomenon) called the power of a good example. You may never know it, but the fact that your department has taken some small but meaningful steps to be more environmentally conscious can encourage other groups to follow that same path.
I mentioned that many environmentally friendly actions save money, but some (like buying offsets) do not. Does HR have any justification for spending money to become green? Putting aside for the moment the fact that shareholders probably do want the company to be environmentally conscious, HR does have a good reason: they are responsible for the employment brand. Being environmentally conscious can be a helpful factor in attracting and retaining talent.
As soon as we talk about employment brand we move beyond actions within the HR department and into actions that involve the company as a whole. Effectively building “we are environmentally friendly” into the employment brand means learning what the company is doing, encouraging it to do more, and communicating what is being done to current and prospective employees. This is a true cross-functional effort involving people from production, EHS (environment, health and safety), marketing, public relations and so on. However, HR’s piece of this, “employment brand” is HR’s lever to encourage the company to be environmentally conscious and reap a reward for that consciousness.
If the company as a whole gets behind environmental friendliness then HR has yet another crucial role to play. Getting the right behaviours is a change management project and change management is where all of HR’s expertise can be applied. HR understands what motivates people. They understand the value of vision and goals and reward systems. HR understands the importance of clear accountabilities and how to use metrics. HR understands kaizen and organization design. If a company wants to be more green then HR needs to step up to the plate and say “We know how to make this sort of thing happen. Here’s what the company needs to do if this is going to work.”
There is an element of risk in HR going green. If HR is seen to be pursuing environmental goals at the expense of doing “the real work” then it could backfire. This doesn’t mean that the project should not be pursued, only that as with any initiative HR needs to apply a certain amount of political savvy to keep out of trouble. The upside for HR, the organization and the world clearly outweigh the downside.
There is one last thing which is that there is no real dividing line between work and the rest of our lives. If we are doing something meaningful it will make our lives fuller and reduce stress (see Resonant Leadership by Dr. Richard Boyatzis)—and not just for us personally, but for everyone in the company who gets involved. What we do at work is not limited by the job description or the whims of our boss, it is limited by our own imagination in finding, at times small, but always significant, ways to contribute to the greater good.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research providing writing, research and commentary on human capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and China.
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