How HR pros can boost sustainability and employee engagement

The age of sustainability is here. Some companies, industries and individual businesspeople have done more than others to adapt to it and benefit from it. Now is the time for HR professionals to join the ongoing revolution — and, we hope, to lead their organizations to increasing success in the remarkably challenging, dynamic and exciting new world emerging around us.

This call to action is from the preface of Andrew Savitz's "Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line" (Jossey-Bass, 2013). The book is both a resource and a roadmap for HR leaders, organization development professionals and business leaders interested in creating a sustainable organization. The book stems from a two-year partnership with the world's largest HR association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and is coauthored with Karl Weber.

Bringing good ideas to light

Organized into four parts, the book begins with an in-depth look at General Electric and describes how placing sustainability at the center of GE's mission and day-to-day operations has created new energy, focus and profits for the 122-year-old organization, transforming GE into a company that solves big problems for customers and the world.

Savitz discusses GE's two signature sustainability programs: ecomagination (familiar to anyone who watched GE's recent ads during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics) and healthymagination.

He describes the important role these programs have played in creating a more sustainable culture at GE, including the connection to employee engagement and leadership development.

In my experience as an HR professional, this connection is key and represents a significant opportunity for organizations, especially as it relates to attracting, developing and retaining Gen Y talent. Recognizing and acting on this opportunity is an important way HR professionals can provide unique value and help their organizations become more sustainable.

Greening the employee life cycle

Part II examines each aspect of the five-part employee life cycle and describes how organizations can begin to move from traditional HR policies and programs to more sustainable ones.

One of the most valuable takeaways is a table in Chapter 3 that succinctly summarizes what this evolution could look like across the entire employee life cycle. Savitz includes HR processes that are more obvious, in terms of their connection to sustainability (employer branding), as well as those less obviously connected (promotion and redeployment).

The table not only encourages HR professionals to broaden their thinking about how they can contribute to sustainability, it also serves as a terrific visual reference for any HR professional who wants to understand what more sustainable processes could look like for his or her organization.

Building sustainability into culture

Given the importance of organization development in creating a sustainable culture, Part III is dedicated to three critical OD aspects: building organizational capability, culture change and change management.

Credit: John Wiley & SonsChapter 8 discusses seven crucial capabilities that organizations need to become more sustainable (among them long-term orientation and adaptability). This section is helpful in terms of organizational as well as individual career and leadership development planning. Long-term orientation, for example, is a crucial capability for HR and business leaders to cultivate, given its relevance to strategic planning, talent development and workforce planning.

In general, however, it's not a capability that receives significant attention, perhaps in part because of the way in which most individuals and organizations are incentivized.

Chapter 9 provides an excellent refresher on culture, leveraging Edgar H. Schein's model as a framework for building a sustainable culture. Savitz's discussion of why more traditional cultures may be resistant to sustainability is an important read as well.

A halo over the golden triangle

Two big ideas stand out in this final section.

The first is "the golden triangle," which describes the inter-relationship between employee engagement, business results and sustainability. The concept describes a mutually reinforcing relationship, whereby organizations positively affecting one of the three factors (sustainability) will, in turn, positively affect the other two (employee engagement and business results). This interrelationship provides a framework and potentially another helpful addition to the business case for creating a more sustainable culture.

The second big idea — and a very practical one for HR professionals to understand — is research that suggests a "halo effect" exists relative to employee treatment that carries over to attitudes about social responsibility. Organizations focused on programs and processes that improve employee health and happiness may be viewed as more socially responsible, regardless of whether they employ any other efforts associated with building a more sustainable culture.

My own anecdotal observations suggest this effect exists. In fact, this finding seems to strengthen the business case for organizations such as Zappos who are placing an overt focus on cultivating happiness.

But Savitz's lessons don't end there.

At 352 pages, it is a thorough and well-researched resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the interplay between employee engagement, sustainability and business results.

Top image of paper people by Andrey_Popov via Shutterstock.