Work can and should be a force for good, and the drive towards responsible and sustainable business begins with people. HR leaders should use their influence to build fairer, more human-centric work within their organisations.

The situation

Responsible business has been steadily climbing up the agenda, driven by growing investor and regulatory interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters, and an organisational focus on values and purpose. Employers are increasingly recognising that they need to operate ethically and responsibly, to meet the expectations of both their workforce and their customers and to manage reputational risks. To do this, they need to build fair, compassionate and inclusive workplaces, and to play closer attention to their role in communities and society. Leaders and investors are increasingly focused on employee matters as part of a responsible business agenda.

Research has shown that those organisations that had human leadership and trust built into their organisations, were those that survived through the COVID-19 crisis the most effectively.

People issues are business issues. Items that might once have been low priority or an afterthought, such as culture, employee wellbeing, diversity and inclusion and engagement, are leadership and board priorities.

CIPD viewpoint

We need a shift in business practices to ensure work is a force for good. The post-pandemic recovery presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a fairer, more human-centric world of work. HR leaders have a vital role to play in leading, building, managing and governing responsible businesses – we must not snap back or maintain outdated working practices.

An organisation’s people are a key part of the 'S' in ESG. All of the key challenges facing boardrooms and leadership teams today require a deep understanding of the people aspects of business.

The people profession stepped up to the plate during the pandemic. Now we must maintain and cement its well-earned place at the top of the organisation.

Key to achieving this, is improving the quality of external reporting on human capital management information which can ensure there is wider understanding of the value of investing in the workforce to underpin responsible business practice and sustainable performance.

Recommendations for employers

  • Keep the people issues that rose to the top of the agenda at the peak of the pandemic front and centre, during the rebuild and recovery phase. These include:

    • Organisational culture
    • Employee engagement and voice
    • Health and wellbeing
    • Fairness in reward and recognition
    • Flexible working
    • Inclusivity

  • Seize the opportunity to decide which changes in working practices forced by the pandemic should stick, what should be forgotten and what problems we still need to solve.

  • Make responsible business a formal part of your HR leaders’ role and support them to take the lead in designing a new world of work. HR leaders must take the lead on building, managing and governing responsible businesses.

  • Develop HR leaders to speak the language of the boardroom, and encourage them to take boardroom opportunities.

  • Invest in leadership and people management development programmes that are focused on building cultures of trust, ensuring managers at all levels role-model behaviours that support employee engagement and wellbeing.

  • For better people and workplace decisions, align your approach to the professional values of being principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes driven, a key element of the Profession Map.

  • Prioritise improving the quality of human capital data and analytics. This will not only support the case for enhanced investment in people management and development, but also provide greater transparency for stakeholders, such as investors and customers, on how the organise treats its workforce.

Recommendations for policy makers

  • Task regulators such as the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) in the UK, or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US, to improve workforce reporting standards. Organisations can already refer to work by the World Economic Forum and others on frameworks and human capital metrics for key stakeholders such as investors, customers and workers on how they invest in, manage and develop their workforce for the long term.


We’re gathering evidence about how to put ideas about responsible business into practice. We want to hear from leaders about: the implications of the pandemic on responsible business, how we put ideas about responsible business into practice, and the implications for developing responsible leaders. Please  email Scarlett Brown  to get involved.


CIPD resources and references

External resources and references

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