Inspiring positive change - the role of HR in today’s green workplace

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When it comes to environmental or sustainable policy, it seems that businesses are making the same initial mistakes that they did when the internet first became available. At that time everyone rushed to create a website and packed it full of information, but failed to develop a strategy or to appreciate that the web could fundamentally change the way they worked. Within just 10 years the internet became an integral and essential element in even the smallest business. Today we take it for granted and wonder how we ever managed without it. Are businesses now doing the same when it comes to the environment? Do they simply get someone to put together a document filled full of information, make a brief announcement and leave it on a server somewhere? ‘Job done’, boxes ticked. In many cases it appears so.

The issue of the environment isn’t going away and anyone who thinks it is just a short-term fad is kidding themselves. Its relevance to all organisations may not be clear today but, like the web, in just a few years time it will have become embedded in the way the most dynamic organisations operate.

The environment or sustainability or whatever phrase you want to use, if assimilated properly, influences the strategy and business plan and in all probability requires a shift in corporate culture if real and positive changes are to be achieved. What is clear is that it will be the HR and training professionals in the business who will need to create the strategy and get the message right.

Along with the rest of the senior management, HR must take a serious look under the bonnet of their operations and ask themselves some difficult questions:

  • Is there likely to be more legislation and scrutiny around environmental issues?
  • If fossil fuels continue to deplete how high will costs go?
  • Are we or our supply chain dependent on resources that are becoming scarce?
  • Would the government really introduce new taxes for biodiversity loss, carbon emissions and water usage?
  • Will environmental considerations start to have a real influence on consumer’s purchasing decisions?

We don’t have the answers but we can probably guess. These issues and all the others related to business sustainability are, at some point, going to require businesses to change the way they operate if they are to succeed and prosper. Technology and purchasing will have some impact, but real change will require a people development strategy.

Engagement with employees at all levels is going to be crucial if businesses are to remain sustainable in the future. Unfortunately, communication and conversation around environmental and sustainable issues is almost non-existent in many businesses and is often limited to the occasional poster, print-out or copy of the latest CSR document. As a result, experience shows that the vast majority of employees know very little about what their business is doing when it comes to the environment. Getting this right may not be as difficult as you think, as you probably already have the appropriate communication vehicles in place, you may just need to refresh the content and set expectations.

The simple truth is that the cost of doing business will continue to rise if a new way of working is not achieved. Whether it is fuel, energy, carbon taxes or the price of resources, costs are only going one way - up.

The role of HR can only go so far and at some point people need to start taking responsibility for their own actions in the workplace. It is employees that keep their computers running, run the taps, forget to switch off the lights, print out, bin instead of recycling, drive to the business meeting and so on. It is employees who can help control costs, protect your business and ensure your sustainability. But they need to be in the right mindset and have permission to make decisions based on your environmental and sustainability objectives, as well as your financial targets.

This is not about a one-off conference or a newsletter - it is about permanently changing the way decisions are made and the way people work to enable the organisation to function in a different and ultimately more relevant way.

You’ll know when you’ve succeeded when environmental and sustainability considerations are an instinctive part of the decision-making process at all levels. This isn’t just about re-educating a few managers, this requires a top-down and bottom-up strategy. For example, if you already have environmental commitments you can weave them into the recruitment process, the induction programme, the leadership model, annual appraisals, and the reward scheme.

It’s important that any skeptics in your organisation are clear that this isn’t about whether or not you believe in anthropogenic climate change - this is about protecting the business, and their livelihoods, against the future. We used to think of future proofing as a technological fix. These days however future proofing is about understanding what is happening in the natural world and preparing ourselves for the inevitable changes and impacts.

It’s a lot to take on board. And at a time of economic uncertainty it would be understandable for businesses to focus on short-term issues, and relegate the environmental challenges to the ‘back burner’.

If an organisation is to change significantly, the objectives and reasons behind the changes have to be understood and supported by all who work for, and with, that organization.

Communicating environmental issues can be difficult but only if you try to do too much. It is great to see when people link their purchasing decisions with deforestation, biodiversity loss, floods and poverty in a country half way around the world, but you really need to be in the same room having a conversation to achieve that level of understanding. If you have thousands or even hundreds of employees that can be difficult so you have to choose your media carefully, make the complex easy to understand and pick one or two subjects at a time.

What works well with any change programme is having ‘champions’ or ‘ambassadors’. This is what Wal Mart has done in the US for the environment. By having a local champion who has been trained to understand the issues and coach the staff, not only have Wal Mart seen benefits in terms of energy saving and recycling, but staff are also benefitting from being fitter and healthier because they are now walking and cycling to work rather than driving.

Visibly demonstrating your commitments is an effective way of communicating to your teams and wider stakeholders. Puma decided that their commitments to the environment were so integral to their business plan that financial and sustainability reporting for 2010 was published within the same document. This sends a clear message that the environment is just as important as profit.

However, be careful not to produce ‘green-wash’: saying one thing but actually not doing very much at all. As the environmental agenda gains momentum and becomes increasingly important you can be sure that analysts, journalists and sharp-eyed customers will be able to spot those that are really making a difference from those that are simply claiming to make a difference. Being caught exaggerating your environmental credentials might not seem too serious now but it is likely to damage brand reputation in the coming years.

Environmental issues aren’t going away. Sustaining a business is going to require a change in the way it operates and the smart businesses are doing this now, gaining competitive advantage and ensuring their future success. This is the next big challenge for HR and training professionals and those that get to grips with it early will be leading their businesses forward and getting noticed.
 

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