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Why human resources needs to take sustainability much more seriously

Here’s a quick Q&A with Andy Savitz, author of a new book on how CR/sustainability and human resources can and must be increasingly linked:

Talent, Transformation, and the Triple Bottom Line: How Companies Can Leverage Human Resources to Achieve Sustainable Growth

Andy’s a good friend of mine. His previous book, available here, still stands the test of time.

Here’s the Q&A:

Q: What’s the new book about?

Andy Savitz: According to Wiley, this is the “field defining”  book on the role of human resource professionals in advancing sustainability within their organizations.

It’s focused on four critical HR areas:

(1) embedding sustainability in HR processes (aka the “employee life cycle” )

(2) developing organizational capabilities to facilitate sustainability

(3) aligning or changing corporate culture to support sustainability and 

(4) increasing employee engagement through sustainability.

The book also shows HR professionals how they can can leverage sustainability to make progress on traditional HR objectives, such as attracting top talent and reducing the costs of recruitment, increasing diversity, improving employee health, safety and wellness, reducing health care costs, improving employee morale and retention, etc.

It’s a very practical guide, almost a textbook, with tools, lists, action steps and case studies that can be put into action immediately.

Q) Why HR, why now?

Andy Savitz: Many companies are struck on how to embed sustainability- how to make it part of daily thought and activities, aka  how to make it “part of the company’s DNA”. 

HR holds some keys in terms of getting unstuck. HR has its hands on the levers of what motivates and socializes employees – from pay and promotion to training and culture.

Yet HR is still on the sidelines at least according to many HR associations and gurus, and from what I’ve seen in working with companies on CSR.  

Companies sometimes try to get their employees involved, but these are often one-off events without the systematic reinforcement that HR can bring to the efforts.

A general awakening may be underway as many companies, sustainability groups (e.g. WBCSD, Ceres) and HR associations (CIPD, SHRM), have started to focus on this.

The book will hopefully accelerate learning and action and it puts most of the knowledge in one place.

Q) Company names: Who does this well, and why?

Andy Savitz: Culture and Engagement: Starbucks’ business success is based largely on aligning employee and company values, and ensuring it has the culture to support that alignment.

Starbucks’s also does an amazing job of creating employee engagement (in the HR sense of commitment  loyalty and motivation) through its triple bottom line of environmental, ethical sourcing and community activities.

Embedding in employee life cycle, and leveraging sustainability to make progress on traditional HR objectives:  much has been written on GE’s “Ecomagination” initiative, but not about HR is using it to recruit and retain top talent and to create a sense of shared mission across multiple, diverse businesses.

Or how HR has helped to design the “Healthymagination” initiative to drive down health care costs, while creating employee wellness and empowerment at the same time.

American Electric Power (my client) created a significant amount of culture change and measurable sweet spot progress around safety, while we may be the first book to explain why BP has been unable to do the same, resulting in incident after incident throughout the last decade culminating (so far) in the Deepwater Horizon.

Q) Tell us about the most common mistakes companies make with regard to employee engagement?

Andy Savitz: Very few measure it with rigor and those that do don’t measure the connection of employee engagement  (EE) to business results. They just make assumptions which is like blindfold darts.

The book shows that sustainability can be a significant factor in increasing employee engagement- for both those employees who participate in programs and even those that don’t, but who are more motivated nonetheless. EE  ties to increased productivity, increased customer satisfaction, which tie directly to business results,

If this is true for your org, it could be, dare I say it ….profound. The business case for sustainability may not be just the cost savings or the other usual suspects.

Those benefits may be dwarfed by a small uptick in engagement across the board for all employees. You just need to measure it to find out whether and how it might work for your company.

Q) Crystal ball time: What can your book tell us about the next five years of motivating people?

Andy Savitz: One thing is that if you don’t change your organization to motivate employees with sustainability, it might change you.
Very few HR professionals are fully aware of the HUGE uptake in sustainability education at all levels.

People are entering the workforce with expectations around being able to “bring their environmental [or social or community values] to work”.

With the breakdown between work and professional life advancing rapidly – shift from balance to integration – and the ability of employees to network, companies and their cultures may get changed from the bottom up.

Also mid career people are also wanting to be sustainable at work as they are increasingly so at home. So this change is coming, You can either get on board with it and use it to your advantage, or not.

Author’s note: My recommendation is very much that you buy this book.

It’s readable, engaging and insightful. Bear in mind that Andy is a very good friend of mine, but that’s how I know it’s so good.