HR plays critical role in ‘sustainable organization’ (Guest commentary)

CSR key to business success

From companies rallying to raise money to help victims of the Haiti earthquake to employees being given the day off with pay for working at a food bank to BP compensating the many businesses damaged by the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, employers are focusing on the importance of acting in a socially responsible manner and being good corporate citizens.

For many successful companies, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is no longer just a boardroom buzzword but a key to business success.

Sustainable development is concerned with how business can contribute to the most significant challenges the world is facing. It means organizations must “walk the talk,” demonstrating not just a concern for profits but for employees and the environments in which they operate.

Organizations that look beyond short-term financial goals to engage in long-term commitments to the betterment of society are more efficient. They are better able to market products and less susceptible to expensive public relations blunders.

The predictions for 2011 and beyond are there will be significant growth in CSR, and the focus will be on fully integrating CSR into strategy and developing metrics for understanding and measuring its business value.

HR has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate value to an organization, playing an integral role in moving CSR forward. Leveraging this opportunity means HR will take a leading role in encouraging employees to have a broader view of the environment’s social and economic outcomes, to understand how their work and actions can influence not just corporate sustainability but pride in contributing to one’s environment.

Embedding CSR ethics into an organization requires an HR department to examine its policies and practices to highlight the importance of the corporation’s sustainable agenda. It will mean hiring individuals whose belief systems and values support a sustainable perspective, rewarding individuals for demonstrating these values and aligning targets and incentives with the goals and objectives derived from sustainable initiatives.

As change champions, HR will be responsible for not only fostering a culture of sustainable development but also making employees key stakeholders in a CSR program, creating opportunities for employees to contribute in many different ways and enhancing training programs to develop skilled people with a sustainable mindset.

To be effective at embedding CSR, HR professionals must develop individual competencies as well as organizational capabilities. Learning more about sustainable issues facing the organization and ensuring alignment across functions will be necessary if integration is successful.

For example, asking employees to demonstrate commitment to social action and supporting this with time off and recognition for the work they do will require a significant commitment from senior management. Engaging all stakeholders and instilling a collective sense of pride in how an organization has chosen to pursue its social responsibilities will further strengthen the CSR agenda.

Organizations successful at managing sustainable development are not only expected to develop quantifiable measures to articulate the business value of CSR activities but must focus on fully integrating CSR into strategy. As HR professionals, we can support this drive towards innovation by fully integrating these measures into a company’s performance management and improvement systems, making sustainability a part of the value proposition.

As CSR becomes an important business innovation driver, more organizations will be required to demonstrate commitment to the triple bottom line. Potential new hires and employees alike will be scrutinizing organizations more closely to decide if they want to work there or go to an organization that truly “walks the talk.” Macleans magazine, along with Jantzi Research, recently evaluated Canadian companies on the basis of their performance using a broad range of environmental, social and governance indicators, resulting in the first ever list of the Top 50 Canadian Socially Responsible Corporations.

Embedding sustainable HR management activities into an organization is an important goal — it is our contribution and an opportunity for HR to demonstrate it is truly a valued-added business partner in an employer’s journey towards building a sustainable enterprise.

Julie Bulmash is co-ordinator of HR programs and a professor at George Brown College in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 415-5000 ext. 6715 or

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