If one of Amy Rao's employees fancies a gas-saving hybrid car, he or she can subtract $10,000 from the price tag. That's because the founder and CEO of Integrated Archive Systems Inc., a Palo Alto, California, data management solutions specialist, grants each of her 63 employees that much toward the purchase of any hybrid. Rao, 45, is a committed environmentalist but considers the program as much human resources policy as environmental initiative. "The hybrid car program is such an incredible gift to an employee that it really does build allegiance to the company," says Rao.
HR has plenty to contribute to the greening of a company. A recent report from independent researchers Kate Lister and Tom Harnish suggests that if U.S. employers allowed all employees who are able to work from home to do so, it would cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 107 million tons and reduce foreign oil dependence by 80 percent. Greening a company also helps HR, says Jeana Wirtenberg, a director of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "First of all, you'll recruit and retain better. Second, you'll have people who are more engaged and productive."
Hybrid purchase incentives and tele-commuting policies aren't the only opportunities for HR to go green. Rao gives free reusable grocery bags to clients or employees and provides free in-office lunches every day so no one has to drive to eat. Wirtenberg says other companies sponsor gas-saving carpools and even give free bicycles to employees interested in pedaling to work.
If green HR sounds appealing, don't forget the perils of green HR policies. Greenwashing, or acting green when you really aren't, rarely fools anyone and can do more harm than good, Wirtenberg says. "You can't get ahead of your headlights, and you can't go too far out in terms of self-congratulation." For example, if you spend more money on touting your greenness than you do on actual green practices, that's a red flag.
Wirtenberg sees HR gaining a central role in building sustainable enterprises, from developing future leaders to leading organizational change in the direction of sustainability. For the moment, however, most employers can differentiate themselves significantly without having to do very much. "HR's role is pivotal," Wirtenberg says, "and to a great extent it's missing in action."
There are exceptions. Integrated Archive Systems is setting a good example for small companies everywhere when it comes to being green. Now that 50 percent of her employees have purchased hybrids, Rao recently extended the program to cover a second hybrid for a spouse or partner. She explains that the expansion is equally important for reducing the company's carbon footprint and retaining valuable employees. "If you polled employees and asked them what is the number-one benefit of working at IAS," she says, "it would be the hybrid car program."
Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.