HR and Sustainability

By David Creelman

The success of the sustainability movement in corporations came as a surprise. There is a good argument for the business value of sustainability practices, but that isn’t the origin of its power. Sustainability is fundamentally an ethical position and one that has been embraced by leaders, employees, customers and even some investors. However, the ethical impetus just gets the ball rolling. Grant Ricketts, the CEO of Tripos Software who is both a sustainability advocate and expert on learning, says that for sustainability programs to be successful they need HR. Not only that, HR needs sustainability too.

Why Sustainability Needs HR
The challenge for a sustainability initiative is that it affects all parts of an organization, requires changes of established processes and mindsets, and is bound to encounter some resistance. Experts in sustainability know all about the environmental and business impacts of sustainability practices. What they need help with is redirecting the momentum of a complex, unruly organization and get it moving in a new direction.

Who knows how to change culture, habits, and practices? HR does.

Ricketts, coming from the learning world, not surprisingly focuses on the role the learning function can play. The crowbar for shifting managers’ thinking is education about the business value of sustainable practices. Yes, ethical considerations are what made sustainability a topic, but it the business value of reducing waste, improving reputation and attracting customers that give it staying power in a business. Organizations need to develop a common language around the savings sustainable practices bring so that it can become embedded in the managerial mindset.  Capturing that common language and spreading it through the organization is exactly what learning professionals are good at.

Sustainability needs HR. Without the skills of training, change management and other HR disciplines the potential of sustainability will be unrealized.

Why HR Needs Sustainability
If HR is waiting for the sustainability managers to come over and ask for help they may be waiting a long time. The sustainability people don’t know what they don’t know and are busy learning about change the hard way. HR needs to step up and actively offer its expertise and become a partner in the sustainability drive.

It is obvious sustainability has the attention of senior management. Many Fortune 1000 organizations regularly issue corporate responsibility reports. HR is foolish not to step up and get involved in such an important and high profile initiative. The sustainability movement is a chance for HR to show its value.

HR functions seem unaware of the potential value of partnering with sustainability. Ricketts has done workshops on organizational learning to standing room only audiences of sustainability professionals. Yet, workshops on sustainability are only sparsely attended by HR professionals who fail to see the connection to their work.  That is not a good sign for the HR profession; it shows an inability to see beyond the borders of their own specialties.

A Broader Lesson
Ricketts’ argument that sustainability and HR needs each other has wide applicability. Any time the organization is involved in an enterprise-wide project the human dimensions of that project will be crucial. Managers leading the project will know a lot about their area of specialty, but they are unlikely to have deep expertise in change management, culture, organization design or learning. HR should be proud of its unique skillset and confident in stepping forth to play a role as a partner in crucial large projects.

Of course, this formulation presumes HR really does have deep expertise in all the essential sub-disciplines. If it’s not there, then hopefully your passion for sustainability will drive you to develop those capabilities so that HR can be part of making a difference to the planet.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at


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