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Why Companies Need HR To Create Change And Become Sustainable

By Ioana Tetelea, Managing Partner at Invisible Nature

When asked in an interview about what is getting in the way of leaders and businesses to change, Peter Senge, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “The Fifth Discipline”,  answered that the issue lies in the fact that a lot of people are just focused on their careers, on climbing the corporate ladders. The idea of change is seen as the ‘world’s biggest interruption to their life plans’.

It’s true. People working in companies usually don’t like change and they certainly don’t like to hear that they have to change for something called “sustainability”, especially when the organization they work for hasn’t managed to inspire and motivate them to act in a sustainable manner and make them see the links between the business, their job and key sustainable development aspects.

But whether we like it or not, the world is changing and companies need to rethink their business in order to address their material environmental and social impacts and, at the same time, contribute with solutions to challenges such as climate change, deterioration of ecosystems, increased use of natural resources, poverty or unsustainable patterns of consumption. If companies want to create real change and have a real positive impact, they need to start the transition from ‘doing good’ to creating ‘good companies’ by integrating sustainability principles into the core of the enterprise.

HR, A CHANGE AGENT FOR SUSTAINABILITY

‘FIRST, SUSTAINABLE PRACTICES REQUIRE DEEP-SEATED CHANGE IN THE WAY MOST ORGANIZATIONS TODAY CONDUCT THEMSELVES. SECOND, THIS SORT OF FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE REQUIRES A TRANSFORMATION IN THE WAY ORGANIZATIONS SEE THEMSELVES – THAT IS, IN THEIR CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF WHO THEY ARE.’ (HAMILTON AND GIOIA, 2009)

Corporate sustainability is indeed a process of change in which a company’s strategy, activities, systems, organisational culture etc. are rethought with the direct participation of senior managers. During this process,  HR becomes an agent of change that can

‘HELP CREATE THE SYSTEMS…TO REINFORCE THE WIDE RANGE OF  SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES AND INSTITUTIONALIZE THE CHANGE’ (SROUFE ET AL, 2010)

Another important role of HR is

‘TO DEVELOP THE COMPETENCIES, COLLABORATIVE STRATEGIES, AND ORGANIZATIONAL CAPABILITIES REQUIRED TO SUPPORT THE ORGANISATION’S SUSTAINABILITY  JOURNEY’ (WIRTENBERG ET AL,2007)

CHANGE MANAGEMENT FOR A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS

Change management is an important process in building a sustainable company and HR departments play a key role in developing change management activities that could help companies advance sustainable business practices.

One way HR could support change is by creating platforms or tools for spreading ideas related to sustainability throughout the company or for collecting ideas and solutions from employees regarding sustainability change. An example of activity in which employees are invited to find solutions and implement changes related to sustainability is General Electric’s ‘Energy Treasure Hunt. This is an event during which the employees visit different General Electric facilities on a Sunday, when operations are closed, and look for areas in which energy or other resources are not efficiently used. In the next days after the event the energy saving ideas are discussed in the company and the teams are working on developing these ideas.

Another way HR can encourage changes related to sustainability in the company is by identifying and promoting internal sustainability champions that could become advocates of the sustainable development strategy and initiatives. The retailer Marks & Spencer is using this approach for making sure that ‘Plan A’, the sustainability strategy of the company launched in 2007, becomes a reality at every level of the business. Every Marks & Spencer store has a dedicated Plan A champion whose role is to inspire his colleagues to adopt sustainable actions at work (e.g. reducing paper and energy use). Moreover, the champions meet frequently to discuss ideas and challenges related to the implementation of the sustainability strategy.

Article references: Hamilton, A. and Gioia, D.A. (2009) Fostering sustainability-focused organizational  identities, in Roberts, L.M. and Dutton, J.E. eds. Exploring positive identities and organizations. Building a theoretical and research foundation, Routledge, New York / Sroufe, R., Liewbowitz, J., Sivasubramaniam, N. (2010) Are You a Leader or a Laggard? HR’s Role in Creating a Sustainability Culture, People and Strategy 33 (1): 7–14 / Wirtenberg, J., Harmon, K.D., Russell, W.G., Fairfield, K.D. (2007) HR’s role in building a sustainable enterprise, Human Resource Planning, 30(1): 10-20.

Ioana TeteleaIoana Tetelea, Managing Partner at Invisible Nature has almost 10 years experience in the field of corporate responsibility and sustainability communications. She has expertise in areas such as sustainability strategies and reporting, sustainable HR, Green Office or stakeholder engagement.

Invisible NatureInvisible Nature is an environmental & sustainability consultancy based in Romania that works with businesses, authorities and NGOs to create system-level changes for a sustainable future.