Corporate Sustainability: The Role of Human Resources

Corporate Sustainability: The Role of Human Resources

In recent years there has been significant discussion in business and academic circles, and in the popular press about ‘corporate sustainability.’ Other concepts like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), ‘sustainable development’ and “corporate social responsibility” have also been frequently, and not totally correctly, used in conjunction with, or as synonyms for this term.

Why has corporate sustainability become important?

Corporate sustainability is an evolving corporate management paradigm that recognises the importance of corporate growth and profitability while also requiring the corporation to pursue societal goals, specifically those related to sustainable development — economic, environment and social development – informally referred to as profit, planet, and people. The upside to this is its attractiveness to investors who want to capitalise on responsible organisations. In simple terms, it showcases wholesome practices that can be imbibed by organisations to allow them to continue in business for longer, remain attractive and be agents for positive change within their space.

In this article, we will delve into a key aspect of corporations that deals with the employees who form a critical aspect of the ‘people’ of the Triple Ps – the human resources (HR) department. ‘People’ fall under the social aspect of sustainability. They are the wheel upon which an organisation runs. The Human Resources department exists to ensure that every component of the company (employer and employee) are properly maximised.

There has never been a time in recent history when such emphasis has been focused on business ethos and employee relations within the business community like now. Major businesses are spending millions of dollars on consultants to teach their managers how to better interact with their employees, create healthy workplaces and preserve employees’ mental health. Nations are identifying loopholes within stakeholder engagement and ensuring compliance.

As has been recently rediscovered, “happy employees are more productive”. Productivity pays all.

Incorporating Sustainability Strategies in HR

But what does sustainability have to do with human resources, you might ask. Sustainability in the broadest possible sense refers to the ability of something to maintain or ‘sustain’ itself over time. In human resource management, however, sustainability would refer to human resources that foster a conducive working environment and positive human and social outcomes without losing other results that are necessary for business continuity such as financial strategies and profits.

In organisations, various departments are responsible for sustainable practices and the human resources department is one of the most important for many reasons. To understand their importance practically and effectively, we must understand the key responsibilities of the HR department in an organisation that makes for corporate sustainability.

Recruitment, onboarding and training

Recruitment, onboarding, and training are integral functions of HR; and through these processes, HR professionals can make sure that business strategy, succession planning, code of ethics, goals and mission are properly communicated to candidates and new employees at every step. Starting conversations about waste reduction, energy savings etc., help to set the foundations for better practices.

According to a study, 64% of job aspirants are willing to work for organisations that follow responsible business practices. Organisations’ sustainability programs are boosted when they hire candidates who are interested in implementing and contributing to their longevity individually or jointly. Longevity strategies include components of ESG (Economic, Social and Governance). Questions such as: How are employees treated? How are they perceived externally? Have they improved and grown over the years? etc. are matters that should be addressed at this first and most important stage. This stage also makes selection a crucial component for the organisation.

Creating an ethical culture

While no single department within a company can be held responsible for establishing and maintaining an ethical culture, the human resources department is in charge of coordinating activities with the teams responsible for ethics, sustainability, and compliance – and other key units per organisation – so that they may collaborate to establish a shared and values-driven culture.

For organisations that have recently adopted the concept of sustainability within their systems, they would need to learn to create a harmonious culture focused not just on economic factors, but also on social factors – including people engagement – and their relationship with their physical surroundings. This can be accomplished by promoting open communication and practices, such as regular meetings, between senior management and employees and stakeholders, as well as a holistic HR capability that reviews HR policies regularly to ensure alignment with local and international principles, higher employee commitment, and improved organisational performance.

Respect for human rights

The human resources department in companies has been the area mainly responsible for the rights of employees. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out the fundamental right to “just and favourable conditions of work” while Article 7 outlines the right to “equal protection against any discrimination.” To ensure that these human rights are respected for all employees, the role of Human Resources must shift from a focus on managing risks to the employer to also mitigating the risks to employees’ rights. Human Resources must assess, identify and prioritise human rights issues.

Maintaining employer-employee relations

For maintaining peace, respect, understanding and justice at the workplace, it is important to avoid or minimise conflict. It is the role of the HR department to take into consideration the needs and demands of both employers and employees and to communicate them to both parties to promote cohesion. This communication would include not infringing on employees’ human rights, respecting laid down labour laws and eliminating all forms of child labour. HR should promote healthy feedback and ideas from employees.

 Compensation and rewards

The human resources department looks after the compensations and rewards offered to the employees. It makes sure that employees are paid fairly for the nature and amount of work they do and considering their sectoral and national milieu. Sustainability, in this case, can be encouraged among employees by offering rewards (incentivising) to employees who follow perform well or showcase organisational values in their work and behaviour.

 Regulatory compliance

Another important responsibility of the HR department is to ensure compliance with existing labour laws, which is an important social factor for business longevity. The human resources department needs to prohibit all forms of discrimination at the workplace, respect minimum wages and ensure compliance with health and safety-related laws. 

Leading change

The human resources team can bring about positive changes in the work process of an organisation by providing the necessary tools to help employees improve. Such could be by encouraging the use of automated processes or software to avoid the use of paper, thus, creating a positive impact on the environment, reducing the use of plastic at the workplace, encouraging and implementing innovative ideas for maintaining an environmentally and socially responsible workplace.

Another aspect through which HR can lead change is by encouraging volunteering; allowing employees to participate in workplace volunteer programs, take time off to serve, and nominate organisations or causes that can be supported.

From the above, it is clear that the idea of sustainability, which equates to the many practices that make a business exist for longer, is cogent and essential in human resources since it encompasses all of an organisation’s operations, actions, and resources. As a result, human resources must embrace better behaviours to provide a seamless flow of events and activities, efficient use of finite resources and a conducive working environment. The alignment of HR to responsible practices allows the corporate sustainability of the organisation as a whole plausible.


 About CSR-in-Action’s CSIR

Using certain sustainability indices that explored employee relations, water management, corporate governance, environmental sustainability, brand management etc, CSR-in-Action has released the ‘Corporate Sustainable Investor Report (CSIR)’. It is a report that researches and discloses the sustainability activities of companies in Nigeria; designed as a compendium of leading Nigerian companies’ practices in environmental, social and governance activities that impact the bottom line in the immediate or long term. It is the first of its kind in Nigeria and the region, which takes into primary cognisance, the local business milieu in Nigeria and Africa at large.

Learn more and purchase a copy of the CSIR here.


Author ~ Elizabeth Odeniyi

800 503 CSR-in-Action

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