Leveraging human resources in business sustainability efforts

It’s a somewhat sanitized term for something so vital to any organization, but what exactly is “human resources” in business parlance? Well, it’s your people. Focusing on your human resources means keeping your people engaged in what they’re doing and cognizant of how their efforts impact the company and beyond. Successful companies have employees who understand the importance of sustainability, beyond the break room recycling bin.

A major part of being sustainable is acknowledging (and improving) your company’s impact on the environment, surrounding communities, and other stakeholders. But you also want to manage your workforce so that the organization reflects these values and is itself sustainable for the long haul.

Here we’ll explore how to leverage human resources in business sustainability efforts, including the importance of employee engagement and the inherent challenges of measuring sustainability.

Sustainability and the triple bottom line

The “bottom line,” a reference to the line on a balance sheet indicating the cost of doing business, is generally limited to monetary costs. British management consultant John Elkington addressed what he called the “full cost” of doing business, beyond just dollars and cents, by describing a triple bottom line (or TBL). The three elements of this include:

  1. Profit – Is your company able to sustain itself? Technically, profit is the top line (revenue) minus the bottom line (expenses), but companies usually place a bigger emphasis on profits and shareholder value.
  2. People – Is your company socially responsible? This includes anyone who may be impacted by business decisions in addition to your own employees.
  3. Planet – What is the environmental impact of your business; are you using resources responsibly?

One great example of a business ignoring social and environmental responsibility in the pursuit of maximum profit is the Once-ler’s “thneed” enterprise at the center of Dr. Seuss’s fictional cautionary tale The Lorax. The antagonist proceeds to cut down all of the colorful truffula trees faster than they can reproduce and without any regard for the environmental catastrophe it causes.

Once the trees are all gone, the environment can no longer sustain the animals that once thrived there. And without a sustainable crop of truffula trees, his business fails. While the story ended on a hopeful note, the Once-ler’s disregard for the TBL negatively impacted all three elements (each one exacerbating the other).

But even though profit, people, and planet are intertwined, it can be difficult to measure and quantify a company’s environmental and social impacts.

Getting your people engaged in sustainability efforts

It can be hard to wrap your arms around your company’s environmental and social impacts, but there are some effective ways to implement a TBL approach with regard to your human resources. The following HR “deliverables” are just a few examples offered by HR consultant and author Andrew Savitz:

  • Fair and reasonable pay and competitive benefits
  • Workforce diversity
  • A happy, healthy, and productive workforce
  • Useful training and career development
  • Human rights for employees and suppliers
  • Positive community relations
  • Good working conditions for employees and contractors

Therefore, the first step toward supporting sustainability is to walk the walk as an organization. Show your employees that your company values sustainability and give them reasons to align themselves with those values. When you do that, an employee will be more engaged and your company will more likely attain its sustainability goals.

You can also help support your employees’ own specific interests by giving them a limited number of paid volunteer days and by enacting a policy of matching charitable donations. And by the way, customers pay attention to how companies treat their employees and interact with the community, often patronizing businesses accordingly.

Taking the pulse of employee engagement and sustainability

There may not be a hard and fast method of quantifying your company’s commitment to sustainability, but there are ways to gauge your employee engagement. An engaged workforce, one that feels valued and respected, will go a long way toward boosting your company’s reputation in the broader community. A company’s treatment of its staff tends to overshadow any other philanthropy, environmental projects, or other efforts to care for the TBL, Savitz explains.

The best way to take the pulse of how well you’re engaging human resources in business sustainability efforts is to administer employee surveys. Ask your employees questions like:

  • Do you feel supported and valued?
  • Are you encouraged to pursue activities outside of work that benefit the environment or society?
  • Do you feel a genuine connection to the company’s values, stated or otherwise?

Pursuing a TBL approach to your business is complicated. But properly done, you can reap profits while helping to ensure employee engagement, the health of the surrounding community, and the planet as a whole.

Need help using human resources in business to achieve sustainability?

Human resources, in business as in daily life, make the world go around. Finding and hiring the right employees who not only can get the job done but also carry your company’s vision out into the world can help you achieve your sustainability goals. If you’d like some help figuring all of this out, sign up for Monster Hiring Solutions and you’ll get the latest in expert hiring and workplace-management tips sent directly to your inbox.