Can't HR and sustainability just get along?

Can't HR and sustainability just get along?

Today, we’re releasing the third edition of our employee engagement survey (download here), which GreenBiz began in 2008 in partnership with the National Environmental Education Foundation.

Back in 2008, we identified the growing trend of environmental and sustainability education in both large and small companies. In our most recent results, 73 percent of respondents indicated that their company is educating employees across the organization about its corporate sustainability goals.

But education alone is now mostly table stakes, much like producing an annual sustainability report; it’s just something you do. Leading organizations are moving beyond general education to more formalized programs to harness sustainability as a foundation for innovation and new products and markets. To achieve these goals requires partnering with other departments, perhaps most significantly HR.

The HR/sustainability disconnect

As we note in the report, the challenges begin with language. For the HR department, the term “employee engagement” means something different than for most sustainability professionals. When sustainability professionals talk about employee engagement, they are often referring to employee volunteering, or perhaps more appropriately, participation.

When the human resources department uses the term, they’re talking about it as part of an employee’s overall relationship to the company. Do employees trust the people they work for? Do they have pride in what they do? Do they enjoy the people they work with? These are the factors cited in numerous studies demonstrating that an engaged employee performs at a higher level. HR’s metrics are not volunteer hours or training video click-throughs. They are looking to benchmark employee behavior and attitudes with other companies through such efforts as Fortune magazine’s annual ranking of “Best Companies to Work For.”

Opening doors in HR

Leading sustainability professionals understand that to enroll HR as a productive partner, it’s important to meet them on their terms.

As Gretchen Digby, director of Global Sustainability Programs at Ingersoll Rand, observed, “Measuring employee actions for sustainability and correlating those actions with overall employee engagement data was the most powerful way to engage HR. Once we could demonstrate the connection, the relationship between HR and sustainability deepened and created a new way of thinking and understanding of how the sustainability platform supports engagement.”

Digby went on to emphasize, “Employees want to do what they love, and inviting that into the workplace increases engagement. We have been able to do this and prove the value in terms of engagement scores by enhancing our volunteer Green Teams program as well as increasing opportunities for all employees to get involved in sustainability-related activities.”

For Nicola Peill-Moelter, director of environmental sustainability at Akamai Technologies, partnering with HR began with the company’s recruitment efforts. In the highly competitive technology industry, new college graduates place a lot of emphasis on a company’s sustainability efforts.

According to Akamai’s Catherine Parker, senior manager for Talent Acquisition, “The social media generation wants to work for companies that do more than focus on profit. This cohort is attracted to companies that are making a difference in the world on multiple levels. Our sustainability story makes Akamai more attractive in this market.”

As we found, there are many ways for sustainability professionals to partner with HR, as well as to measure success. For some firms, it’s as much about employee retention as it is about recruitment. For others, especially those who view their sustainability programs as more advanced, it’s about partnering with HR to develop job-specific information and training.

The directive is clear. Instead of begging to get a sustainability-related question included on HR’s annual employee survey, sustainability professionals need to find ways to help the HR group meet its goals. By doing so, you’re also helping HR to understand the importance of sustainability for the company.

Venn diagram by GreenBiz Group