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Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) really something that HR can influence?

Picture of Nicky Valmas

Nicky Valmas

Nicky is Head of Organisational Change and HR Services at Connor. She has an extensive background that includes roles in Sales and Marketing, Procurement Consultancy and HR Business Partnering.


Time is running out to save this planet we live on and as the impact on sustainability marches up high on the agenda, green issues can no longer be ignored by business leaders or HR professionals.


It is widely accepted that we have a climate emergency declared and the government have committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the UK to almost zero by 2050 – but is this quick enough action – will that really help?


“All employers (large and small) should be aware of the climate issue and its threat to the economy, and their critical role in managing it,” says Tom Thackray, Director of infrastructure and energy policy at the CBI. The CBI is appealing to the government to work closely with businesses to reduce carbon emissions. “Science shows the trajectory we’re on is not going to be sufficient to stave off some of the most critical impacts of climate change – we need to go further and faster,” he says. Organisations should appreciate that they are both the cause and cure for climate change, he adds: “Businesses are responsible for a high proportion of emissions, but they will also be at the heart of developing the solutions that will make a big difference.”


At a macro level this is understood, but on a day today basis, what should business leaders and HR teams be doing to ensure that they are supporting the initiatives right through the people agenda and carefully considering how to deliver change in the workplace? Do businesses even believe it’s a departmental responsibility? Or should every employee be playing their part in making changes and adjustments?

Unfortunately, despite the scale and importance of the challenge to every single member of society and – to an even greater extent perhaps – business professionals, many HR teams don’t yet seem to see this as an issue for them and the people they represent.

Although in most cases HR professionals understand and advocate being the catalyst for change and being responsible for future employees supporting key “world stage” agenda items such as Climate Change, this often seems to get overlooked as too complicated, too big or too expensive for their organisation. Organisation’s need to seek support for this topic so that they can prepare for the rapid and demanding change, and take it as seriously as they would sourcing and seeking help for other HR services for small businesses for example.

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HR teams (regardless of the organisation size) have the opportunity as changemakers to influence this regime and directive and make the crucial link for organisations regarding why they should care – even if they don’t own the change program required to embed the shift in mindset.


“Tackling the issues of climate change is all about people – it’s about the future of people,” says Gudrun Cartwright, Environment Director at Business in the Community.


HR professionals are the people and influencers who can build pipelines for the skills of the future, who understand people, enable behaviour change, and put the right processes in place to make it easy for employees to do the right thing. The difficulty is, that like equality diversity and inclusion (EDI), a sustainability and climate change initiative is very hard to deliver without the leadership buy-in and sponsorship. Setting up a committee and rolling out an initiative can only be truly successful if it can be supported and guided from the top with real commitment and investment.


In a recent podcast interview with Richard Kleiner CEO at Gerald Edelman (a top 50 accountancy firm in the SME world), Richard commented that their recently formed sustainability committee has been created “to create strategies that fit within costs parameters …. and take the whole team with us. You’re talking about behaviour change needed by everyone who works in the business, not just one certain group of people.”


Research undertaken in 2019 (even before the cultural shifts instigated by COVID 19) found 73% of workers wanted their employer to improve its sustainability policy. 24% said they would refuse a job at an organisation with a poor sustainability record and that it is perhaps more important than terms and conditions addressing sick pay, time off or even redundancy support for employees. Younger generations tend to be particularly concerned by the climate crisis. If you want to attract young and dynamic talent and retain those already in your teams, one of the key methods is to commit and deliver on the agreement of improved sustainability.

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It’s a sentiment shared by John Chilman, Chief Executive of the Railways Pension Scheme. He says that “absolutely people have not made the link” between HR and environmental responsibility. “Businesses have set up sustainability teams but it’s not in the mainstream, it’s just a sideshow,” he says.

For businesses big and small (who are potentially seeking HR services for small businesses), it’s good to note that despite reticence in some sectors, there is a growing movement in some progressive sectors where HR is not just involved in its organisation’s green agenda, but designing, owning and driving climate change and sustainability initiatives.

It’s increasingly hard to miss the many conversations playing out in public and private spheres on the topic of climate change and sustainability. And of course, there’s little wonder that that’s the case; in a matter of weeks the UK plays host to more than 190 world leaders at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference. Under the spotlight of international attention and expectation for answers and solutions, politicians, legislators, and scientists will be meeting in Glasgow seeking to address the climate change issue. Meanwhile however, whilst COP26 matters to the corporates, the daily pressures of being in business, often compounded by the pandemic, means many under pressure companies may not take much notice. That’s why companies that do follow this year’s COP, as well as future summits, will have a competitive advantage – because they will be better informed about emerging trends.

This really isn’t just a challenge for governments to solve however – increasingly consumers and buyers expect the businesses providing them with goods and services to take a stance on climate change and improving the carbon footprint, regardless of legislative changes. As the UN puts it, “to achieve our climate goals, every company, every manufacturer, every financial firm, every bank, insurer and investor will need to change”.

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In the recent CIPD report, People Profession in 2030: providing collective views of future trends, it was identified that sustainability and responsible business were key topics driving change for people professionals in the next decade and beyond. With external stakeholders and employees alike likely to expect more responsible business practices in the future, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is rising up the organisational agenda in tandem with other concerns such as how to provide redundancy support for employees.

So, in summary it would seem that a focus on sustainable business practices is undoubtedly positive and necessary, and previous research has suggested it has several benefits for businesses, beyond positively contributing to society and improving employer brand. Namely, studies suggest that CSR is associated with perceptions of organisational fairness and philanthropy. In turn, this has been linked to positive employee outcomes like job performance or organisational identification (the sense that someone feels ‘part’ of their organisation). Employees who witness their employer engaging in socially responsible activities that align with their own values, will be more engaged with their role.

This could subsequently enhance job performance and on that basis, HR teams should consider CSR’s role in the employee value proposition, in attracting potential employees and enhancing the experience of existing employees alongside how to deliver change in the workplace.


Infographic provided by Points of Light, providers of corporate service consulting


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