Why human resources is your sustainability ally

Illustration of stick figures on blocks
Stacking up the hidden sustainability benefits of the HR department.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the value that Millennials and Gen Z put on finding purpose in their work — although in fact this point applies to workers of all ages. Companies are still adapting to the expectations of new hires seeking to make a positive impact through their careers, and they are increasingly tasked by employees, jobseekers and even investors with articulating their social purpose and maintaining a high bar for integrity. While the HR team is on the frontlines of these demands from current and potential employees, the sustainability team often owns the programs that can help make staff feel good about their work.

At the same time, recent movements calling for resolution on pay equity, sexual harassment in the workplace, workforce inclusion and diversity, and CEO compensation are just a few examples of how sustainability concerns have come home to roost. In the wake of these shifts, your sustainability team may find itself investigating how your company is performing when it comes to providing good jobs and meaningful diversity and inclusion programs. Addressing these challenges, which are deeply rooted in workplace culture, requires close partnership with your human resources (HR) team.

While you and your colleagues already may have close relationships with the HR function through collaboration on employee engagement and volunteerism, companies are increasingly recognizing the need for deeper partnership between these two functions to better build and sustain an organization where employees are happy, motivated and ethical.

The HR and sustainability teams hold different but complementary responsibilities when it comes to building and maintaining a workplace culture. Your sustainability team often may be tasked with articulating corporate "purpose" and "values," while your HR team holds most of the keys to bringing these values to life, through identifying and recruiting diverse talent, ensuring employee well-being, engaging and retaining employees, and establishing incentive programs. Separately, HR teams may find that their work is driven primarily by compliance concerns, while sustainability teams may struggle to reach the company’s employees with sustainability messages and initiatives.

Working together, sustainability and HR can better address emerging challenges related to good jobs, equity and ethics and meet the needs of your employee base. Here are some emerging issues you may want to partner with your colleagues in HR on:

  • Good jobs: As movements for good jobs gain momentum, companies must consider what they are offering in the way of wages and benefits, job security and quality of working life to remain competitive. Recent investigations into the huge gap between CEO and worker pay ratios raise concerns about growing inequality. Calls for living wages, such as the "Fight for $15" in the U.S., are also heating up. In response to these, IKEA recently hiked its minimum pay to offer a fair wage to all employees nationwide. Our report on Good Jobs and the Changing Nature of Work recommends business leaders take action on additional emerging areas, including workforce transitions due to automation and improving job quality for an increasingly part-time and contract workforce in the digital age.
  • Equity: Companies are asked by employees, investors and customers about their inclusion and diversity performance and efforts to empower women in the workplace more. This extends beyond representation into questions of equity in pay, access to mentorship and advancement opportunities, and diversity of top management and boards. For example, pressure is mounting to close the pay gap between male and female employees, which has helped inspire new commitments and disclosures from companies such as Adobe and Starbucks, who have overhauled their compensation practices in support of equal pay. As another example, Nielsen is both championing diverse and inclusive employment within its own company and in its supply chains through its participation in the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition.
  • Ethics: In our recent report on the Future of Business Ethics (PDF), we note that no single department can own responsibility for installing and maintaining an ethical culture in an organization. Human resources, ethics and compliance, and sustainability teams need to work together to create cultures of integrity. And cultural change is precisely what is required to respond to growing concerns about workplace ethics, including increased concern over consumer and employee data leaks and breaches and revelations of wide-spread inaction on workplace sexual harassment highlighted by the #MeToo movement, among other issues.

New partnership opportunities can emerge when HR teams are embraced as agents of sustainability change and impact within organizations. Companies that support collaboration between their sustainability and HR functions to lead cultural change give both teams a seat at the strategy table, with decision-making authority on an agenda that includes good jobs, equity and ethics.

As a sustainability leader, your team can facilitate this partnership by hosting regular meetings and calls with HR sustainability champions, diversity councils and employee resource groups, creating a space for cross-learning and sharing. You can sponsor HR teams to attend relevant sustainability-focused events and support HR team initiatives with your expertise, access to internal and external networks, and willingness to collaborate.