Has Covid helped HR management become sustainable?

While the pandemic did encourage a shift towards more responsible HRM, many businesses are yet to take advantage of this and rethink their current models and its long-term implications, says Géraldine Galindo

By disrupting the organisation of work, the health crisis has provided an opportunity for human resources management (HRM) to affirm its strategic role, but also to move towards sustainability. Practices that were initiated in 2020 reflect changes in perspective regarding time frames, the actors involved and objectives. Nevertheless there remain many hurdles to overcome before HR management is firmly anchored in sustainability.

From supermarket checkout staff working on the front lines to executives meeting by videoconference, salaried employment during the coronavirus pandemic has been a much discussed topic, and not only in companies. Reorganisation decisions and their effects at the individual and organisational levels have been scrutinised and commented on by all local actors. 

As a consequence of this heightened attention, HRM has taken on a more strategic role and enlarged its scope of action. But beyond this, might the health crisis be an opportunity for HRM to become responsible or sustainable?

The ambitions of sustainable HRM

When talking about corporate social responsibility (CSR), it is often the environmental or financial pillars that come to mind, while the social aspect is sometimes relegated to second place. Yet HRM could absolutely be a driver of sustainability, adapting its strategies and practices to achieve the CSR objectives set by the organisation. 

How? By setting a long-term horizon and by integrating all stakeholders, both internal and external. 

A complete change of course for HRM

To achieve this, the HR department would have to:

  • Shift from reactive to proactive management of human resources, endeavouring to anticipate various future scenarios and their implications.
  • Reach beyond the boundaries of the firm and treat local and regional authorities, as well as employees of other firms, as if they too were customers.
  • Broaden the scope of its objectives to include human and ecological issues.

Sustainable HRM is a veritable paradigm shift. How will it be materialised? 

The health crisis as an opportunity for sustainable HRM

How did companies plan and implement this expanded role for HRM? In practice it was difficult as they had to adapt very quickly in the short term, without neglecting to prepare for a more distant future (the post-crisis period). Moreover, official orders from government and society's reactions introduced constraints – or in some cases were drivers of – this implementation. 

We identify several different levels in the shift towards sustainable HRM:

  • The minimum level of implementation was to keep the business running and thus defend the company's economic interests, while minimising risks and negative consequences. In practice, they supplied masks (and now vaccines) to employees who came to work in person and organised remote working for the others. 
  • ‘Green HRM’ entails an awareness of the ecological impacts of work. In practice, companies have encouraged their employees to work from home, to use ecological means of transport, and to consume local products. Additionally, all of this is expected to have a positive impact on the brand image of the company.
  • ‘Three-fold outcomes for HRM’ is the broadest perspective, encompassing social, environmental and financial aspects, deemed to be inextricably linked, and any contradictions that may ensue. For example, some firms made investments to reduce risks to their employees' health or to reorient production, which negatively impacted their short-term financial indicators, but enhanced their attractiveness in the labour market. 

Ultimately, the health crisis did encourage a shift toward more responsible HRM. Yet very few businesses took advantage of it to rethink their HRM model and place all their issues on an equal footing. We should also remain cautious concerning the durability of this shift to sustainability. 

The risks of an ephemeral shift to sustainable HRM 

Fads and trends are frequent in the world of management. How can we make sure that this shift toward responsible HRM is not just a flash in the pan? We identify three stumbling blocks to avoid:

  • The temptation of ‘short-termism’, because once the storm has passed it is easier to go back to short-term thinking than to launch (or continue with) a truly forward-looking HRM approach.
  • The temptation to limit the number of stakeholders, because increasing the number of actors involved and different perspectives will lead to an increase in the amount of regulation.
  • The temptation to prioritise financial objectives just because they are easier to quantify than human or social objectives.

In short, there is a real risk that companies will take the easy road. So how can we support and promote a transition toward sustainable HRM? 

First, HR directors must fully take hold of this issue, and move beyond their administrative and professional boundaries to broaden their horizons. CEOs also have a role to play, by according HRM its full place and linking the above-mentioned objectives. This also constitutes a challenge for investors: it is up to them to evaluate HR mechanisms and their effects. 

Finally, workers are not left out, since it is their responsibility to apprehend and communicate these expanded ways of managing them. The shift to sustainable HRM is therefore a long transition, akin to individual and organisational transformations, which the crisis will – we hope – have accelerated. 

Géraldine Galindo is professor of management and human resources at ESCP Business School