Sustainability should be a top priority for the HR department, argues Judah Schiller, and promoted properly it can deliver great benefits for the business, the environment and the individual
"Congruence" is the Holy Grail for human resources professionals. With increasingly busy personal lives and demanding professional roles that impact an individual's health and on-the-job performance, HR is seeking new ways to create congruence between the individual who rushes to put breakfast on the family table in the morning and the employee solving business challenges until the early evening. At the very moment when employees are challenging management for more integrated work/life solutions, the popular understanding of global warming, which also requires an integrated solution, has created a unique opportunity for congruence.
So what does a 14-letter, six syllable word -- "sustainability" -- actually mean? The Brundtland Commission created the widely accepted definition for sustainability in 1987 as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In an HR context, however, I use the concept of "Personal Sustainability," which simply means finding a way to meet your needs today without sacrificing your dreams, or anyone else's, for the future. It's really about common sense. What actions can a person take that will serve her highest interest and also that of the community and planet?
Just as sustainability is being used more frequently from an operational perspective to improve internal processes, reduce costs and create efficiencies, Personal Sustainability can also be used as a powerful tool to improve upon a range of HR issues: commitment, attrition, education, health & wellness, motivation, and engagement. In order to effectively deliver the concept of Personal Sustainability to a workforce and maximise its results, the delivery itself must be sustainable.
Companies are discovering that a grassroots framework, instead of the traditional HR program, is a more powerful and flexible tool for educating, inspiring and empowering employees around sustainability. It allows for individuals, departments, facilities and entire markets to engage in a way that best suits their localised needs, culture, and preferences. With grassroots communication tools and strategies, it's the employees and their ideas, aspirations, challenges, and innovative solutions that are featured as the driving force, not corporate execs or consultants.
It's amazing to see what happens when employees enlist their peers in an endeavour rather than being told they must participate in a program. Equally so when they are giving a real opportunity to be creative and do something truly positive and meaningful that is both beyond, yet completely aligned, with their day-to-day business functions.
To get a better understanding of what a framework like this is capable of achieving, all we need to do is listen to a charismatic, middle aged woman from Columbia, South Carolina who I'll call "Sylvia."
I first met Sylvia in 2006 when I was delivering a training session on Personal Sustainability to a group of employees in Georgia. I remembered her southern drawl as she told me stories of coming from a long line of obese women, and of the staple fare in her family's diet being fried food, biscuits and butter. Nothing was farther from her mind than her own personal sustainability -- her health and well being -- let alone connecting that to something bigger. By the end of the day, she had committed to losing weight by eating healthier and walking regularly.
At the core of Personal Sustainability is the belief that by helping a person to choose a small, but meaningful Personal Sustainability practice that not only serves their highest interest -- be it physical, financial, or emotional -- but also that of the community and planet, she will become happier and, in turn, will stick with the practice until it becomes one of many in a sustainable lifestyle.
When I caught up with Sylvia a few weeks later, she explained to me with tears streaming down her cheek that she felt as if she had received a new lease on life. She now felt very passionate about being around to watch her son and his wife have a first child and to helping her kids, grandchildren, extended family, and co-workers learn about how to embrace Personal Sustainability in order to live better, feel happier, and make a difference for the planet on which we all live.
Judah Schiller is the executive vice president and head of outreach for Act Now, a sustainability services company serving the needs of companies and organisations worldwide. Judah and the Act Now team have recently trained 1.3 million Wal-Mart Associates across the U.S. on sustainability.
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