HR and Sustainability: There Needs to Be More Leading by Example

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According to results from an annual sustainability survey by BSR and GlobeScan — the State of Sustainable Business Survey 2013, which provides insights into the world of sustainable business and tracks the successes and challenges faced by corporate sustainability professionals — HR is one of the least engaged corporate functions when it comes to sustainability.

Respondents of the survey ranked human resources as only 34 percent engaged when it came to their companies’ CSR and sustainability commitments in 2013. This is a 3 percent drop in engagement levels since 2011.

However, HR is not the only corporate function recording low engagement when it comes to sustainability.

Finance, marketing rank lower than HR

Finance ranked the lowest in levels of engagement with sustainability activities, with product development, R&D, strategic planning and marketing not far behind. Respondents overall ranked marketing as only 28 percent engaged when it came to sustainability initiatives at their organizations and this engagement level has dropped 14 percent since 2011.

External facing corporate functions, like corporate communications, public affairs, and the CEO’s office, showed high levels of engagement with sustainability (corporate communications ranked highest in engagement levels at 77 percent).

It’s concerning however, that departments like HR and marketing, which have important relationships with both internal and external stakeholders, are showing such low levels of engagement with sustainability initiatives. Why are we not seeing higher engagement with these corporate functions?

At a time when many organizations are placing greater emphasis on their role as a socially conscious company, we find many highly successful companies leading by example. Despite the obvious reasons for shining a light on sustainability practices like showing strong ethics and helping others/the planet, there are other incentives to highlighting such practices.

Reports show that young workers more often choose employers that are socially conscious and align with their own values. Additionally, we’re seeing more and more successful companies “going green” and injecting sustainability deeply into their business strategy, using it to create value for their employees and customers.

Only 20% of companies have integrated sustainability

Given that today’s job seekers are looking for their work to provide them with a sense of meaning, it would seem only logical for HR to engage more completely with such initiatives — and perhaps even take the lead. But this does not appear to be the case.

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The BSR/GlobeScan survey reports that only one in five companies has fully integrated sustainability into business strategy and practices, and from this data it appears that company-wide collaboration on sustainability is still the exception rather than the norm.

When asked about the most important leadership challenge of business today, 62 percent of respondents cited the integration of sustainability into core business functions. This is a significantly higher percentage than the next leading answer, “convincing investors that sustainability enhances value’” at only 28 percent. Climate change and public policy frameworks promoting sustainability were ranked highest when asked what sustainability issues need collaboration the most.

Consider the sustainability/social initiatives at your organization. Is there a collaborative engagement in these practices across all departments? Or do only the most external facing functions show high levels of engagement?

And where is HR in the discussion at your organization? Leading? Participating? Or waiting for another function to step up?


This originally appeared on China Gorman’s blog at

China Gorman is a successful global business executive in the competitive Human Capital Management (HCM) sector. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker and writer bringing the CEO perspective to the challenges of building cultures of humanity for top performance and innovation, and strengthening the business impact of Human Resources.

Well known for her tenure as CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, COO and interim CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and President of Lee Hecht Harrison, China works with HCM organizations all over the world to enhance their brands and their go-to-market strategies. Additionally, she serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Jobs for America’s Graduates as well as the Advisory Boards of Elevated Careers, the Workforce Institute at Kronos, and WorldBlu. Addtionally, she chairs the Globoforce WorkHuman Advisory Board and the Universum North America Board. China is the author of the popular blog Data Point Tuesday, and is published and frequently quoted in media properties like Fortune, TLNT, Huffington Post, Inc., Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report and many others.


1 Comment on “HR and Sustainability: There Needs to Be More Leading by Example

  1. I couldn’t agree with this more! It seems simple right? Lead by example? But for some reason, so many upper level execs seem to forget that eyes are on them. If lower level employees can learn from their superiors, there would be better understanding of company goals, ethics, and overall vision. Thanks for bringing this concept back to the forefront!


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