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HR's Impact on Long Term Environmental Sustainability

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This essay focuses on the role of human resources (HR) in achieving environmental sustainability. It starts by very briefly explaining what environmental sustainability is, and why it is so important for individuals and organisations to contribute to achieving goals and targets related to sustainability. It next briefly explains what is meant by HR. Next it considers the ways in which HR managers are likely to be involved in supporting their organisations to reach sustainability targets. A focus on one organisation then allows some ideas to be developed that can form the basis of recommendations for improvement of environmental sustainability key to HR.

Environmental sustainability is a component of the sustainable development concept. This concept is described as development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987:43). Essentially, it argues that to sustain life - both human and animal - the provision of clean water and air, and energy obtained from renewable resources are vital (Sutton, 2004).

Human Resource departments might not seem the natural home of a focus on environmental sustainability, as often the burden of responsibility in an organisation is placed on an operations manager. However, there is definitely a role to play for human resources. In researching this issue, care must be taken to include terms that encompass the HR function - these can include Human Resource Management (HRM), Employment Services (ES), Human Capital, Personnel and others (Abusafia, 2012).

HR Management Support for the Drive Towards Environmental Sustainability

There is a range of HR activities that directly contribute to the environmental sustainability of an organisation. These often revolve around the development of 'green' jobs - and the infrastructure, training, personal development planning, performance management, communication, attitude monitoring and other aspects that go along with the creation of new posts, or new components of existing posts (Jackson, 2012). Liebowitz (2010) argues that the role of HR is more fundamental and deep seated than developing processes - he suggests that the HR department has a very significant role to play in the creation of a company's sustainability culture, as it is professionally trained to change the attitudes and behaviours of employees, from senior executives to the most junior of staff (Liebowitz, 2010). Liebowitz also argues that HR managers are far removed from the old traditional personnel manager. Today, HR staff are likely to know much more about the business, and they use a human capital management approach to underpin the development of staff to achieve environmental objectives (Lebowitz, 2010). Wilkins (2014) identifies the skill to motivate and encourage employees to become engaged with sustainability programmes within an organisation as key to their success (Wilkins, 2014). In fact, Wilkins argues that to achieve success, three key components are necessary - communication, education and motivation. Communication includes good environmental practice for employees (reducing energy use), and highlighting individual and organisational environmental achievements (Wilkins, 2014). Education can be used to provide employees with practical information about integrating environmental objectives into their daily work, for example, engaging in recycling activities; this can also improve productivity as all staff are working towards a common purpose (Wilkins, 2014). Motivation in the form of an environmentally focussed rewards programme can ensure that employees remain committed, and can actually help retention of valuable staff (Wilkins, 2014).

Cohen et al (2012) suggest that one influencing factor on the role HR plays in supporting environmental sustainability, will be the motivations behind the organisation's move towards more sustainable operations and strategies. They argue that the route taken may make the HR contribution easier or more difficult. They identify a values-based route, a strategic route and a defensive route. The first is associated mostly with the personal principles of the founders of small businesses - some of which may have become much larger (Cohen et al, 2012). The second is those businesses that identify opportunities in redesigning products or services to expand into markets where environmental characteristics are valued (Cohen et al, 2012). Lastly, the defensive route occurs when companies come under pressure to change their approach, perhaps because of a pollution incident (Cohen et al, 2012). It is clear that each of these routes will have a different impact on the work of the HR manager: where the business chooses to commit to environmental objectives, there is likely to be a positive culture, whilst companies forced into accepting change in environmental attitudes are likely to generate at least some resistance (Harmon et al, 2010).

What the above discussion shows is that there is motivation for HR managers and departments to become involved in supporting a move towards environmental sustainability in their organisation. There are a number of HR tools that can be used to embed such sustainability objectives into an organisation. There are four main areas where such tools may be deployed: employee attraction and selection; employee training, development and compensation; creating a sustainable organisational climate; and, management support and communication (Cohen et al, 2012). Having a good environmental profile has been found to attract high quality employees (Government of Canada, n.d.), and to retain these employees for longer than average retention periods (Ernst & Young, 2013), and the HR department can therefore use a commitment to environmental sustainability in their job advertising, ensuring that they have an edge over their competitors (Ernst & Young, 2013). To maintain and energise staff to commit to environmental processes, i.e. to motivate employees (Human Resource Excellence, 2012) it is necessary to provide targeted training, for example, in life cycle analysis to reduce inefficiency and waste, and to include formal evaluations of such commitment i.e. targets to be achieved in job plans (Manufacturing Skills Australia, 2015). Changing an organisation's culture is often the most challenging, but also the most necessary approach. While there may be commitment at the senior management level, this is likely to decline the further down the organisational hierarchy you go (Petrini and Pozzebon, 2010). This is especially true in traditional industries, such as construction, where male dominated heavy labour has little cultural awareness of environmental issues (Built Environment Sustainability Training, 2014). Management support through communication that relates to employees lives can indicate an overall organisational commitment to environmental sustainability, and can encourage people to integrate environmental principles throughout their daily lives (Fleischer, 2009). HR can assist in all of these areas through training, communication, incentivisation, PDP and other such tools. The following section provides some recommendations for such actions in one organisation.

Recommendations for Improving Environmental Sustainability Through HR

The organisation chosen for the case study is a construction company, McGregor Construction, which is located in the Scottish Highlands. This company was formed in 1977, but has previous history going back 132 years (McGregor Construction n.d.). Annual turnover is around £9.5 million, and the company covers the construction spectrum, including building projects for hospitals, sports stadiums, shopping centres, council housing, and private housing (McGregor Construction, n.d.). Work includes both new build and repairs to existing properties, some of these being very old and architecturally important. It has 68 employees, many of whom have been with the company for a long time (Endole, 2015). .

The employee profile is important in that it is largely male (80%), and largely older age groups, with 63% in the 40 - 56 years age bracket, and 7% in the 57 - 70, 5% in the 70+, while 15% is in the 25 - 39 years and 10% in the 18 - 24 bracket. Many of the older employees are highly skilled, not only in modern building techniques but in traditional craft based skills building techniques.

The company has come under increasing pressure to develop a strategic and operational approach to environmental management. This pressure has arisen partly from the industry itself, as the construction sector has made substantial efforts to integrate sustainability objectives into the activities and functions of the industry (European Commission, 2012). It has also arisen from pressure through the supply chain - as McGregor is a supplier of services to a number of large customers, who have a commitment to greening their supply chains. Finally, the company is aware that they are not as efficient as they could be in managing their energy use and waste, and are seeking to improve these aspects to save money. The five main environmental objectives the company has identified are: to reduce waste throughout the company by 40% in the next year, to reduce fuel use and on site energy used combined by 40% in the next year, to increase the use of recycled materials by 10%, and to support community environmental objectives, and to reduce on site noise pollution, again all in the next financial year.

There are a number of recommendations that can be made to support the HR manager - who is assisted by one member of staff for administrative purposes - in achieving these objectives. Using the four main areas of HR related improvement identified by Cohen et al (2012), a range of specific actions may be taken.

First, employee attraction and selection. One HR tool is to integrate the selection of new employees with the long term environmental strategy of the company - so for all future employees it is recommended that an environmental component is built into job plans or descriptions. Specifically, waste management and energy use reduction should be a target tasked for all new employees. This should be followed up by the inclusion of environmental stewardship questions as part of the interview process; candidates could even be asked to give a very short presentation on the importance of environmental management in the construction industry. By using these tools, it not only signals to prospective employees that the company is seriously committed to environmental improvement, and that if they are employed they will be expected to contribute. It may also attract individuals who might otherwise have ignored a small company in favour of finding a large one with an established sustainability strategy.

Second, employee training, development and compensation. Here HR can have a substantial input. Environmental training programmes can be devised and be mandatory for all staff (CIPD, 2015), with specific focus for some staff on certain issues. For example, for people labouring or working actually in building processes, a focus on the handling of materials and reduction of waste would be a sensible inclusion. Training for all staff on energy conservation i.e. switching off machinery, lights and so on when not required, would be an easy initial approach. Training programmes should be aligned with the company's environmental objectives, so that the training can directly feed into the achievement of the objectives. Compensation is a useful approach, and can be operationalised by HR in a number of ways. For example, Intel uses an Environmental Excellence award programme, which incentivises environmental behaviour through peer review of nominations for environmental innovation (Patton, 2013). One outcome was the reduction of energy consumption of chillers, boiler plants and vacuum pumps that in just one factory is estimated to save $38 million (Patton, 2013). On a much smaller scale, such a programme could be supported and instigated in McGregor's - with innovations in material recycling, energy use reduction, fuel saving, building technologies and techniques and carbon reduction as expected outcomes.

Third is the creation of a sustainable organisational climate. Here HR can contribute by using sustainability oriented entry, performance and exit practices (Verburg and Den Hartog, 2006), as long as senior management recognises the importance of integrating HR into the overall company sustainability strategy (Putter, 2010). In achieving a sustainability oriented climate, HR can be especially useful in supporting the work of line managers in recruiting more employees, managing their environmental performance, and ensuring that when they leave they do so with substantial environmental awareness, and respect for what the company have done. Indeed, if HR integrates environmental issues across the whole company through workforce planning then this directly feeds into the organisational climate (Petrini and Pozzebon, 2010)

The final area of recommendations is for management support and communication. It is vital that the company directors and senior managers demonstrate absolute commitment to environmental sustainability - and they should lead by example. An employee of the month scheme could be instituted - with public recognition of an individual's environmental achievements being a well recognised effective approach (Silverman, 2004). Employees seeing that senior managers are rewarding such behaviours are likely to engage with further activities when they are introduced by HR through the tools previously described.


It is clear the HR has a substantial role to play in the integration of environmental sustainability in any organisation - and has an increasing range of tools and systems that can be used to achieve this.


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