Managing Director Jaluch HR & Training
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HR in a heatwave: what role do we play in climate change?

24th Jul 2019
Managing Director Jaluch HR & Training
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climate change protestors
iStock/DisobeyArt

We’re in the middle of a long, hot summer of climate change protests – but how is your HR team addressing the issue of sustainability and can it actually impact your ability to attract and retain talent

This June was the hottest on record with apocryphal headlines heralding even more freak weather, from thunderstorms to blistering heat waves throughout the next month. 

In times of peak-heat the office microcosm inevitably focuses on the thermostat. 

Google search ‘how hot does it need to be to leave work UK’ and it returns millions of articles discussing what are ‘reasonable’ conditions in which to work, and at what temperature workers can pack up. 

For HR, hot weather might include an upsurge in well-timed absences or pleading for air conditioning but is less likely, (for now) to include requests for an explanation of what they are doing to make the rising heat stop. 

That may sound ridiculous but bear in mind this is the year that schoolchildren are taking to the streets over their fear of climate change, and Extinction Rebellion are threatening protests at high profile events like Wimbledon. 

The pressure on organisations to prove they are acting sustainably is no longer about plastic bag taxes, it is about the proactive steps they are taking to stem climate change in a real and urgent way. 

Employees taking to the streets

Employees are increasingly interested in environmental issues in a way we haven’t previously seen. They are increasingly concerned about waste, sustainability and carbon emissions. 

A global workers’ strike is set for 20 September, with workers in 141 countries expected to take some form of action to signal their concern over climate change. 

We are seeing a new activism involving people who aren’t usually politically active and it is the job of HR to spot and understand how their role must adapt to these trends.

This is HR’s chance to take a strategic lead by lobbying the board to change - after all a lackadaisical strategy might very soon impact your ability to recruit and retain top quality staff. 

As a result, employees are putting increasing pressure on organisations (including their own employers) that do not operate in a sustainable way. 

We all know that increasingly job applicants are selecting potential employers based on culture and values rather than job title and salary. 

Consider the blockade of BP. Following this, how are BP employees currently feeling? Might there be a chance that morale has dipped and a few unexpected resignations have been made as a result of employees reviewing their life and work choices? 

No one likes it when their company is made out to be the ‘baddie’.

HR has to first and foremost get on board and accept it has a key role to play in respect of environmental strategy as failure to do so will impact a whole host of things including recruitment, retention, morale, and productivity.

HR shaping climate strategy

The first step HR professionals must take is to ensure they understand what the organisation’s strategy is on environmental issues and understand how employees and potential recruits will view this strategy. 

This requires critical thinking and feeling empowered to question and challenge, as well as to understand the wider context and draw inspiration and insight from external sources. 

Forbes’ list of the world’s most sustainable companies provides food for thought and goes to show that a sustainable strategy doesn’t put the kybosh on profit and growth. 

There are very few organisations (if any) that can’t improve their green strategies. 

This is HR’s chance to take a strategic lead by lobbying the board to change - after all a lackadaisical strategy might very soon impact your ability to recruit and retain top quality staff. 

It’s this focus on the business outcomes of a sustainable strategy that can give HR not just a place at the table but can ensure they are the lynchpin that aligns wider leadership. 

Communicating the revolution 

What does your company say about its environmental strategy and how does it communicate it to employees? Is it buried in an employee handbook, unchallenged or unrevised? 

The first step for any HR team focused on sustainability is the policies, messaging and materials in circulation, and an evaluation of their appropriateness. 

If the strategy is fit for purpose, it is also vital to consider whether the organisation’s values and culture support your stance on the environment and, if they don’t, create a plan to change them.

HR is uniquely placed at the heart of an organisation to act as a lynchpin of sustainability in an organisation. 

It is also vital that to involve your unions or staff representatives at an early stage to get feedback and input on strategy and plans. After all, they are in a great position to help when it comes to implementation. 

Understanding the wider context and impact of these changes will inevitably make them easier. 

Similarly, consider the value of conducting a snapshot employee survey into environmental issues and ask questions about accountability, i.e. do your employees hold themselves to account on this or is it just about holding you to account?

Day to day change

If you have a large HR function, then consider appointing a green team to work on sustainability initiatives and culture around the environment. 

Where possible, small changes can start with green objectives to work towards, e.g. staff travel to minimise carbon footprint, water/energy use, waste/recycling etc. 

Building on the feedback you get from your staff representatives and survey this is the perfect opportunity to get your staff involved, appointing some as champions - but make sure you put support, procedures and rewards in place to ensure consistency and longevity of any such programme. 

There are also other simple steps you can take to start making a positive change:

  • Tap into the online calculators that are increasingly available to allow you to estimate the carbon footprint of your business (carbonfootprint.com), with a focus on staff.
  • Hold short, regular training/awareness sessions on sustainability and environmental issues. Ask existing staff to share their ideas and best practice, you’ll be amazed how many people can bring in new ideas if given the opportunity.
  • Audit your HR and training suppliers with a view to replacing some and re-appointing with suppliers that are more attuned to environmental issues.
  • Review flexible working policies from an environmental perspective. Are there any missed opportunities? If there are staff who can work just one day from home what would the environmental impact be?
  • Track it all and communicate regularly as staff will want to know where improvements have been made and where your (and their) successes are coming from.
  • Re-draft your travel policy with guidelines covering the preferred form of transport, taking into account emissions. Encourage and incentivise staff to walk, cycle or use public transport.
  • Review where staff uniforms come from. Are they environmentally friendly? Can they be recycled?
  • Review your policy on secondments, intercompany transfers etc. as the carbon footprint of moving a valued employee from London to New York is MASSIVE! If you could just halve the number of secondments, what impact would that make?

Keep the big picture in focus

While there are numerous tweaks and changes that can be made to support sustainable strategies it is vital that HR do not simply become known for piecemeal efforts, that might look great on the intranet but lack teeth when it comes to the boardroom. 

HR is uniquely placed at the heart of an organisation to act as a lynchpin of sustainability in an organisation. 

They can help in bringing together disparate roles under an umbrella of sustainability in a strategic way. 

Whether it’s lobbying boards to make sustainable commitments, championing an ambitious environmental strategy and using innovative behaviour change programmes to make an impact on the frontline, HR can and must do more.

With businesses across all sectors coming under a glaring sustainability spotlight, how will you as an HR professional answer critics when your organisation’s day comes?
Interested in this topic? Read How to take care of people, the planet and profits.

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