Green business: the HR angle

2011

Last year I was approached at an event I was speaking at by the director of a car dealership. She explained that the company had appointed an energy champion in each one of their dozen showrooms but that none were hitting their energy efficiency targets. Did I have any advice on how to motivate them?

I asked her who the energy champions were. She told me they were volunteers from the sales staff.

"And how much authority do they have?" I wondered?

"Er, none." She shrugged.

In other words, she had given them responsibility to hit targets, but no authority to act. No wonder the initiative was a failure.

I suggested that instead, she give the showroom managers the responsibility to hit the energy efficiency targets and ask them to report progress alongside their sales figures. I was going to add "Where should I send my invoice?" but by then she had made her escape.

Unfortunately, this misalignment between environmental responsibility and authority is all too common. Environmental managers often have huge responsibilities - in many cases keeping their bosses out of jail - but typically have very little authority.

A few years ago I carried out a series of waste minimisation visits for manufacturing businesses. I tended to be invited in by the environmental manager, but when we traced a waste stream back to its source it was inevitably arising from a production problem. This diagnosis was usually followed by a rather frosty meeting with the production manager who couldn't wait to get the two of us out of their office. Apparently environmental managers aren't allowed to tell production managers how to do their job.

For a business to go green properly it has to break this deadlock, taking 'the environment' out of the environmental manager's office and embedding it in the DNA of the organisation – and that includes Human Resources departments.

Far from being immune from this universal responsibility for environmental issues, HR has a key part to play, one that encompasses three main areas.

First, HR has a key role in developing a culture in which everybody takes personal responsibility and adjusts their behaviour accordingly. Studies have shown that 60-70% of potential environmental improvements rely on behavioural change by individual staff members.

Second, HR needs to build the necessary capacity in the workforce. Leading edge green businesses such as InterfaceFLOR and Procter & Gamble have obligatory environmental training courses for everyone, with some courses tailored to particular job roles.

Third, HR can change job descriptions and personal targets to give formal responsibility to those who actually have the authority to make a difference. The upside of this challenge for HR departments is that people like working for greener businesses. Study after study has shown that young people setting out on their careers want a job which doesn't conflict with their values.

There is plenty of evidence of this from the real world. For example, UK-based retailer WH Smith has started including their environmental policy in job application packs because they were getting so many queries about green issues from applicants. This attraction isn't lost after recruitment either.

Similarly InterfaceFLOR, one of Europe's leading commercial floorin gmanufactures, attributes their unusually high staff retention rate to their groundbreaking sustainability programme and a recent global study found a strong correlation between environmental performance and the happiness of employees.

So, HR professionals, when the environmental manager comes knocking on your office door, make him or her feel welcome!

Gareth Kane's second book, The Green Executive, is out on 20 May 2011.

About The Author

Gareth Kane
Gareth Kane

Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, speaker, trainer, coach and author. He has worked with hundreds of organisations, from small local companies to trans-national corporations, to help them get the most from the sustainability agenda.