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5 Tips for Sustainability and Human Resources Success

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Sustainability is the concept of managing an organization by taking into account environmental, social and a wide range of economic factors, as well as external reporting on progress on these three "bottom lines."  This article is the first in a series on how sustainability affects the various functions of a company, often in ways that are not recognized.

Andrew Savitz recently published Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line, describing how companies can leverage HR to achieve sustainable growth.  I've selected 5 of the many ways companies can create value by combining sustainability and human resources from the book and an interview with the author.

  1. HR can accelerate innovation by embedding a sustainable culture in every job.

In the 1970s, companies began to address quality by creating a centralized [small] "quality department."  This failed, because quality is more than correcting defects in finished products; it involves attention to detail in every aspect of a company's operations.

Sustainability, while still in need of clear direction and specialized expertise, achieves real business value when it is fully understood as a component of the business.  Employees factor environmental, social and business considerations into every decision.

2. HR can manage the employment cycle to create more satisfying jobs and business value for the company.

Sustainability considerations affect many business functions, from research to supply chain management, operations, maintenance, customer satisfaction, brand positioning and marketing.  Social and environmental factors differ, as does the specialized business expertise applicable.

Many companies have realized that a career in one department was limiting; they now rotate top talent across multiple functions to understand the breadth of the business.  Integrating non-traditional environmental, social, and economic factors into a career trajectory across departments can contribute to greater success for the individual and each department.

3. HR can help bring business skills to sustainability

Savitz's book includes Venn diagrams that illustrate how the "sustainability sweet spot" combines business and sustainability elements.  Sustainability professionals have adopted many business practices, from accounting practices for greenhouse gas emissions to financial and energy returns for capital investments.   HR can help define personal and departmental goals, metrics and resource plans.

4. Robust sustainability programs enable HR to attract the talent the company is looking for

Talent, Transformation and TBL references several surveys that show that new employees (especially millennials) want to work for companies with strong commitments and programs for environmental and economic issues.  Indeed, they see companies without such programs as out of touch.

According to Savitz, "As concern grows about the environment and various social issues such as privacy, human rights and product safety, employees want to work for companies that are part of the solution, not part of the problem."

5. Sustainability helps HR achieve its goals

Company goals around diversity, teamwork and other issues often fall under the purview of HR.  Benefits to improve employee skills, such as training or continuing education, are often HR's responsibility.

Sustainability includes diversity issues such as gender, economic class, and employee benefits.  It includes company-sponsored or subsidized training and education.

Savitz says, "When I spoke with dozens of HR professionals as part of my research for my book, I was struck by how many things HR does that are perfectly aligned with sustainability.  For example, diversity requires a culture of openness to different perspectives.  The same is true for sustainability."

Talent, Transformation and TBL includes many stories that illustrate these points.  Traditionally, if The Gap had an item that sold well, the company would order more from its suppliers.  Now, the company looks at the economic, environmental and social feasibility of doing so.  For example, do suppliers have the capacity to fill a large rush order without creating unacceptable working conditions, or the ability to subcontract without permission to other entities that use forced labor?

Campbell's Soup Company employees begin the performance evaluation process with a self-assessment that includes questions and objectives on sustainability issues.  Dozens of other examples across many industries, as well as practical questions for business leaders, sustainability specialists, and HR professionals, appear at the end of each chapter.  Many of these tips are usable or adaptable to the HR practices of small and growing companies.

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