HR’s key role in creating net-zero organisations

Ben Willmott is CIPD’s Head of Public Policy. 

The unprecedented heatwave that at the time of writing is gripping parts of the US and Canada is a sharp reminder that the pandemic is not the only pressing emergency we face. 

Of course, responding to COVID-19 has been the key priority for employers and will continue to place significant demands on HR leaders and teams even as the economy opens up. As well as protecting the workforce and supporting their wellbeing, organisations are now developing hybrid working practices and dealing with potential skills or labour shortages. 

Sustainable growth 

This is a daunting to-do list, but it must not stop business and HR leaders from playing their part in tackling the climate crisis. As companies consider how to recover from the impact of the pandemic and bolster growth, there is an opportunity to integrate a focus on sustainability into their business strategy and the day-to-day activities, and to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. This message is likely to be reinforced when the UK hosts COP26 (26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow in November. 

It is estimated that businesses contributed 17% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the UK in 2019 which highlights the potential impact that can be made if many more organisations took steps to reduce their carbon footprint. The people profession can play a major role in helping employers achieve this. 

Business strategy/ workforce planning 

At a strategic level, people professionals can influence and inform thinking about the workforce implications of any investment in bespoke green technology or in technology that can reduce the environmental impact of how goods or services are created or delivered. 

For example, in the housing sector, the introduction of heat pumps could have a huge impact on decarbonising the UK’s housing stock. However, there are significant skills development challenges associated with training sufficient engineers to install these systems. Consequently, there is a real need for employers in the sector to engage in strategic workforce planning to understand these upcoming skills gaps or shortages and start to address them now. This could mean working with local further education providers to develop the necessary skills. 

Across all sectors, workforce planning is a really effective way for HR leaders to influence business thinking over how firms can move towards carbon neutrality. Strategic workforce planning starts with a PESTLE analysis of the wider political, environmental, technological and legal, social context that firms are operating in – and explores what this means for current and future workforce skills development in light of changes to the business strategy or model. 

Values and culture 

People professionals can also encourage organisations to reference a commitment to environmental sustainability in their core values. Increasingly companies’ employees and prospective staff, as well as customers and investors, will want to work for, buy from or invest in companies that have a commitment to climate action. 

Values provide a core reference point for the principles that underpin desired organisational culture and ways of working, providing of course they are lived and role-modelled across an organisation from the top down and influence longer-term strategy and business investment. 

Recruitment/induction 

Referencing an organisation’s commitment to climate action in job adverts or during the interview process can also help attract candidates and encourage them to join. There are also tactical ways to cut the carbon footprint of recruitment activities, such as a move to paperless administration, or by conducting more interviews online to reduce unnecessary travel - something that may well have been introduced through the pandemic already. 

The inclusion of information about the organisation’s environmental sustainability objectives and employee requirements in the induction process can reinforce awareness among new staff of the organisation’s commitment to climate action. 

Flexible working/travel 

Adopting more flexible and hybrid forms of working can make a material difference to reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint – simply by cutting emissions generated by those commuting to the workplace. Beware, however, that employers must factor in the impact of employees working from home and encourage sustainable choices like switching to a green energy provider at home and minimising energy usage. 

People professionals can also support the creation of a green travel plan for both business travel and commuting to the workplace. 

Training and development too can be shifted to minimise the need for staff to travel. Blended approaches and technology, such as live online delivery and social and collaborative learning through communities of practice, can all reduce the environmental impact. 

Performance management 

Performance management is another tool to incentivise employees to support efforts to reduce energy consumption or emissions. Competency frameworks or people’s objectives can be used to reinforce the role individuals need to play in supporting the organisation’s environmental strategy. 

Integrating climate action thinking into business as usual 

Collectively, relatively small changes to different areas of HR and people management policy and practice can have a significant effect on reducing an organisation’s carbon footprint. HR can role-model these changes, and work with other business functions to start to integrate climate action into how we all do business. 

Our Guide to Sustainability provides a great overview and practical suggestions on how people professionals can play a more active role in achieving this aim. 

CIPD will also be working with Climate Action for Associations (CAFA) and creating further resources for members to help HR leaders and practitioners make a tangible difference towards achieving the goal of creating net-zero organisations.  

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