Climate Change

Climate change efforts are HR efforts—here’s why

As more companies work to incorporate net-zero emissions goals and sustainability into their business models, enacting climate-related policies is increasingly falling to HR.
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Dianna “Mick” McDougall/Wasan Prunglampoo/Getty Images

5 min read

HR pros often describe themselves as a Jack or Jill of all trades. You start your morning with a meeting on workplace culture, oversee a coaching session before lunch, approve payroll in the afternoon, and discuss job descriptions with hiring managers before heading home. They say variety is the spice of life.

Well, things might get extra spicy soon, if corporate climate policy is headed for your plate.

“Frankly, sometimes the people function nowadays [covers] all the things that no one else knows what to do with,” said Hanna Lindén, CPO at Signal AI, a tech company that helps businesses use data to inform decision-making.

Not a climate scientist? No worries; it’s safe to assume most HR Brew readers are not. But addressing global carbon emissions and the climate crisis is increasingly becoming part of people teams’ portfolios.

Employer brand. Employees (both current and prospective) want to know what companies are doing to address climate change and carbon emissions. Some 35% of UK employees say they’d quit their job if their employer took no action to reduce its carbon footprint, according to a 2022 report from Supercritical, a software platform that helps companies achieve net-zero.

While public concerns over climate change lag in the US compared to other countries, the Supercritical report argues that climate and net-zero efforts will soon be under the same scrutiny as DE&I. It may be on HR to make sure candidate and employee questions are answered.

If there aren’t already clear climate and carbon emissions goals, HR leaders can bring up the issue with leadership to make sure the company stays competitive and attracts top talent.

“I assumed the most common role I’d be working with is the CFO, but actually one of the most common roles we work with is the chief people officer,” said Supercritical’s co-founder and CEO Michelle You. “The chief people officer comes to us because they’re not a climate scientist. They are not versed in the finer details of carbon accounting,” she said.

People policy. Plenty of climate-related policy originates in HR. Travel is often the first that comes to mind, according to You.

“The basic thing that we could do straight away…is that we need to have a carbon offsetting scheme for the travel, and then building that into the budget,” Lindén said of Signal’s first steps to enshrine sustainability into company policy.

Last year, the company held its first off-site since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Since leadership felt it was important to bring everyone together for an in-person gathering, Signal reduced its travel for the remainder of 2022 and almost halved the travel budget for 2023.

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Remote employees are a significant source of emissions that companies don’t often think about, You said. Though WFH and hybrid work arrangements have reduced vehicle emissions, they’ve contributed to an increase in at-home energy consumption.

HR can also team up with IT around hardware purchases like laptops and phones, which impact a company’s carbon footprint, said You. It can also work with facilities management to address energy use at the office, added Lindén.

Companies that provide employees meals, snacks, and coffee can consider offering fewer meat options and sourcing locally. Signal, for example, “massively reduced” the availability of dairy creamers, encouraging employees to use plant-based milks in their morning brew; it also offers fewer meat options at company-sponsored events.

Green benefits. Shankar Raman, global leader for the technology industry group at Willis Towers Watson, said sustainability efforts go beyond workplace policies. Employers can encourage employees to do more to tackle climate change by offering a suite of green benefits.

“Things such as green benefits, for example, are playing a really big role in helping drive right behavior and being able to help support employees in their climate objectives and connect their personal objectives to the company’s,” he said.

Examples offered by Raman include employer subsidies for renewable energy or energy-efficient appliances, commuter benefits for public transit or cycle-to-work programs, and replacing company-issued cars with EVs.

Supporting employee well-being. HR may also want to consider creating a plan to support workers ahead of severe climate and weather events, Raman said, pointing to recent flooding in California and the bomb cyclone in late December as examples.

Will additional resources be needed for employees increasingly experiencing extreme weather events?

Raman said he has not seen many companies take a proactive view on this type of risk management related climate change.

You suggested company net-zero goals as a way to help employees feel like they’re contributing to the solution.

“This challenge is not going away,” You said. “People can feel quite powerless, but if you can affect your sphere of influence, which is your workplace…you can feel empowered that you’re doing something about a problem that can feel quite depressing.”—AD

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.