December 17, 2014

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A Call to Action for HR: The Age of Sustainability Is Here

A new book provides a guide for HR professionals to help their companies implement sustainability in a more integrated manner.

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By Susan Camberis

In many ways, Andrew Savitz's Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line (Jossey-Bass, 2013) is a call to action for HR professionals, summed up beautifully in the book’s preface:

The age of sustainability is here. Some companies, industries, and individual businesspeople have done more than others to adapt to it and benefit from it. Now is the time for HR professionals to join the ongoing revolution – and, we hope, to lead their organizations to increasing success in the remarkably challenging, dynamic and exciting new world emerging around us.

Stemming from a two-year partnership with the world’s largest HR association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and coauthored with Karl Weber, the book is both a resource and a roadmap for HR leaders, organization development professionals and business leaders interested in creating a sustainable organization.

In Depth: The GE Case

Organized into four parts, the book begins with an in-depth look at General Electric (GE) and describes how placing sustainabilityTalent-Transformation-TripleBottomLine at the center of GE’s mission and day-to-day operations has created new energy, focus, and profits for the 122 year-old organization, transforming GE into a company that solves big problems for customers and the world.

Savitz discusses GE’s two signature sustainability programs: ecomagination (familiar to anyone who watched GE’s recent ads during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics) and healthymagination.

He describes the important role these programs have played in creating a more sustainable culture at GE, including the connection to employee engagement and leadership development. In my experience as an HR professional, this connection is key and represents a significant opportunity for organizations, especially as it relates to attracting, developing and retaining Gen Y talent. Recognizing and acting on this opportunity is an important way HR professionals can provide unique value and help their organizations become more sustainable.

Savitz also uses Part I to discuss the broader context of sustainability, as both a global challenge and an opportunity, and to reintroduce readers to his 2006 “sweet spot” concept as described in The Triple Bottom Line: How Today's Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success – and How You Can Too (Jossey-Bass, 2006):

"…an area where business interests overlap with the interests of society — including both the environmental and social benefits."

The Employee Life Cycle: From Traditional to Sustainable

Part II examines each aspect of the employee life cycle and describes how organizations can begin to move from traditional HR policies and programs to more sustainable ones.

One of the most valuable takeaways is a table in Chapter 3 that succinctly summarizes what this evolution could look like across the entire employee life cycle. Savitz includes HR processes that are more obvious, in terms of their connection to sustainability (e.g., employer branding), as well as those that are less obviously connected (e.g., promotion and redeployment).

The table not only encourages HR professionals to broaden their thinking about how they can contribute to sustainability, it also serves as a terrific visual reference for any HR professional who wants to understand what more sustainable processes could look sustainable-organizationlike for his/her organization.

Sustainable Organizational Development

Given the importance of organization development (OD) in creating a sustainable culture, Part III is dedicated to three critical OD aspects: building organizational capability, culture change and change management.

Chapter 8 discusses seven crucial capabilities that organizations need to become more sustainable (e.g., long-term orientation and adaptability). This section is helpful in terms of organizational, as well as individual career and leadership development planning. Long-term orientation, for example, is a crucial capability for HR and business leaders to cultivate, given its relevance to strategic planning, talent development and workforce planning. In general, however, it’s not a capability that receives significant attention, perhaps in part due to the way in which most individuals and organizations are incentivized.

Chapter 9 provides an excellent refresher on culture, leveraging Edgar H. Schein’s model as a framework for building a sustainable culture. His discussion on why more traditional cultures may be resistant to sustainability is an important read as well.

Sustainability and Employee Engagement

Some of the most valuable concepts in the book though are covered in Part IV titled, Sustainability and Employee Engagement.

Two big ideas stand out in this final section.

The first is “the golden triangle,” which describes the inter-relationship between employee engagement, business results, and sustainability. The concept describes a mutually reinforcing relationship, whereby organizations positively affecting one of the three factors (e.g., sustainability) will, in turn, positively impact the other two (e.g., employee engagement and business results). This interrelationship provides a framework and potentially another helpful addition to the business case for creating a more sustainable culture.

The second big idea—and a very practical one for HR professionals to understand—is research that suggests a “halo effect” exists relative to employee treatment that carries over to attitudes about social responsibility. Organizations focused on programs and processes that improve haloemployee health and happiness may be viewed as more socially responsible, regardless of whether or not they employ any other efforts associated with building a more sustainable culture. My own anecdotal observations suggest this effect exists. In fact, this finding seems to strengthen the business case for organizations like Zappos who are placing an overt focus on cultivating happiness.

Case Studies, Research, Questions

But Savitz's lessons don't end there.

The book contains many excellent case studies and research, with helpful questions for business leaders, sustainability specialists and HR professionals at the end of each chapter.

For me, the only aspect that could have been strengthened was linkage back to SHRM’s HR competency model. Drawing this linkage more clearly could help HR professionals more readily connect this work with their own professional development – and in turn become a catalyst for action.

At 352 pages, however, it is a thorough and well-researched resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the interplay between employee engagement, sustainability and business results.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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