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“Working” Through Environmental Issues:  The Role of the I-O Psychologist

Ann Hergatt Huffman
Northern Arizona University

Kristen M. Watrous-Rodriguez
St. Mary’s University

Jaime B. Henning
Eastern Kentucky University

Julia Berry
Northern Arizona University

Author’s Note 1: This article is based on the symposium, “Working” Through Environmental Issues: The Role of the I-O Psychologist presented at SIOP 2009. We would like to acknowledge the other authors in this symposium who saw the importance in integrating environmental sustainability into I-O psychology:  Elise L. Amel, Allan H. Church, Christie M. Manning, Jessica L. Saltz, Britain A. Scott, and Connie Wanberg.

Author’s Note 2: The first section of this paper was authored by Huffman, Watrous-Rodriguez, Henning, and Berry and is based on the opening paper of the symposium; the second section presents comments offered by Paul Muchinsky, symposium discussant. 

Environmental issues are a great concern in mainstream society, with online magazines (e.g., www.goinggreenmagazine.com), bestselling books (e.g., Rogers and Kostigen’s The Green Book), and a television channel (i.e., Planet Green) dedicated to them. Multiple sources of environmental damage exist, including organizations. Organizations exert a great impact on the environment; they are the main source of traffic and utilize large amounts of resources (e.g., electricity, paper; see Oskamp et al., 1994). Organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of their carbon footprint. However, although green behaviors are becoming more mainstream, politically correct, and almost expected by society, and although they have received attention in other areas of psychology (e.g., social, environmental) and management, there has been little discourse concerning environmental issues in the workplace among I-O psychologists. The goal of this article is to fill this gap by bringing to light a virtually ignored, yet important and timely, stream of research and application related to environmental issues in the workplace.

We propose two major reasons why it is critical for I-O psychology to become involved in organizational sustainability issues. First, sustainability issues are important to organizations and the work environment. I-O psychology’s goal is to enable organizations to function effectively (Spector, 2000). We achieve this goal by examining and understanding important organizational issues. Because organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of environmental sustainability, our field must follow their lead. Our knowledge of organizational issues (e.g., training, attitudes) should allow us to become a vital resource in environmental sustainability research and practice.

Second, we propose that including environmental sustainability issues on our agenda is the right thing to do. As scientists, our knowledge, skills, and abilities can provide the largest organization, the human race, with a healthy and long-lasting place to live and work. Many researchers have suggested that there is a place for socially responsible topics in I-O psychology (e.g., Koppes, 2007; Lefkowitz, 1990, 2008; Rogelberg, 2006); we believe that environmental sustainability is one of those issues.

In order to assess the gap between organizational behaviors and attitudes toward sustainability and current trends in I-O psychology regarding sustainability, we used three different sources to ascertain the attitudes and behavior of organizations and I-O professionals: (a) a review of Fortune 100 companies’ Web sites, (b) a review of I-O psychology textbooks, and (c) a survey of SIOP members. 

In the past 10 years, many terms have been used to help describe environmental issues, including “sustainability,” “environmental sustainability,” “pro-environmental,” “green,” “corporate ecological responsiveness,” and “ecological behavior.” For consistency, we will use the term “sustainability,” which is defined as “using the world’s resources in ways that will allow human beings to continue to exist on Earth with an adequate quality of life” (Oskamp, p. 496, 2000). Sustainability is related to modern issues such as climate change, energy and water consumption, air pollution, and waste management.

Fortune 100 Companies: Their Environmental Identity

The two proposed reasons for the need of I-O psychologists to be involved in sustainability issues (i.e., importance to organizations and the right things to do) are the same reasons that organizations include sustainability in their missions. Organizations represent one of the most important “customers” of I-O psychologists. With this in mind, we believe that the mission of I-O psychology needs to align with issues core to organizations. In order to fully understand the extent to which organizations see sustainability as a central part of their mission, we reviewed the Web sites of Fortune 100 companies to examine the prevalence of sustainability issues. To this end, two graduate students independently reviewed the Web sites and rated the companies on a range from “no evidence of sustainability” to “sustainability ingrained.” Overall, 71% of companies had sustainability ingrained in the Web site, suggesting that environmental issues are prevalent in today’s top organizations.

Companies’ dedication to sustainability was revealed at both the organizational and individual level. Some examples from highly rated companies’ Web sites highlight their emphasis on sustainability at the organizational level. For example, Exxon Mobil devotes a section on their Web site to “energy and environment.”  Here, they note their reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 5 million metric tons in 2007, which is equivalent to removing about 1 million cars from roads in the United States. Verizon, another company that received the highest rating, has kept over 200 tons of electronic waste and batteries out of landfills by recycling used cell phones or donating them to victims of domestic violence.

Although these examples are more macro in nature, there were some organizations that discussed sustainability issues that were more directly related to their employees. El Paso, a top-rated company, has a paper recycling program, through which 25.6 tons of paper were recycled in a 3-month time frame. This amount represents a 26% reduction in their overall contribution to landfills. In a similar vein, McKesson, a pharmaceutical company, states that they have “established recycling programs in the majority of our locations and offer desk-side recycling at our headquarters facility.” Thus, it is clear from this review that numerous and various types of organizations are realizing their environmental impact and attending to sustainability issues.

I-O Psychologists: Our Environmental Identity

An executive once stated, “In a prosperous society, you really have only two assets: people—their creativity and skills—and the ecosystem around them. Both need to be carefully tended” (Esty & Winston, 2006, p. 32). I-O psychologists have been successful in tending to the people; however, we believe that I-O psychologists can contribute substantially in tending to the ecosystem as well. As I-O psychologists, our expertise in individual and organizational behavior gives us much to contribute to sustainable or “green” behaviors.

Several I-O psychologists have hinted at the importance of sustainability in the field of I-O psychology. Campbell and Campbell (2005) suggest that I-O psychology needs to join other disciplines in working through environmental challenges. Cascio and Aguinis (2008) state that if our discipline continues to rely on past research trends and does not look to timely and relevant topics, HR practitioners and managers will fail to recognize us as organizational experts. Aguinis (in press) states, “Organizational responsibility is a concept consistent with SIOP’s mission as well as the scientist–practitioner model” (p. 35). Finally, Lefkowitz (1990, 2008) suggests that our scientist–practitioner model needs to be extended into a scientist–practitioner–humanist model (S–P–H model). The major goal of I-O psychology is to assist organizations so that they may function effectively (Spector, 2000). With this in mind, we must attend to the important workplace issues of tomorrow to fulfill this goal.

The previous review of Fortune 100 Web sites suggests that sustainability is important to the majority of organizations. With this in mind, we investigated whether this interest level was reflected in the field of I-O psychology. To assess perceptions of the importance of sustainability issues among I-O psychologists, we used three methods. First, we administered a survey to a sample of SIOP members. Second, we reviewed a sample of I-O textbooks to ascertain the level of coverage that sustainability was provided within the textbooks. Third, we conducted a literature review to identify research conducted by I-O psychologists discussing sustainability issues.

Survey.  We administered an online survey to a random group of SIOP members (N = 929) extracted from the membership database. Our response rate was 22% with a final N of 200. Regarding employment, 64.4% of the sample reported working in an applied setting whereas the remaining respondents reported working in academia. In terms of demographic characteristics, 57.4% were male, 96% were White, and the average age was 44.9 (SD = 11.0). 

In terms of the I-O professional as an educator, we examined both the instructional and research components of I-O psychology. Approximately one-third of the sample reported that sustainability issues should be taught in undergraduate I-O classes (36.6%) and graduate I-O classes (34.1%). However, when we examined actual offerings of such classes (i.e., I-O classes related to sustainability issues), 5.9% reported that their university offers an undergraduate class and 1.5% reported that their university offers a graduate class. The distinction between attitudes and behaviors is glaringly obvious in this area. Finally, the majority of the respondents (76.8%) stated that students should have the opportunity to be involved in sustainability-based research.

Textbook review. To assess the coverage of sustainability issues in I-O textbooks, two graduate students independently reviewed the 11 most recent editions (see Appendix A for full list), searching for quotes that included I-O psychologists’ mission to help “others,” “society,” or “humanity.” Overall, some textbooks flirted with the idea of sustainability by mentioning topics such as fostering “society as a whole” (Jex & Britt, 2008) and making contributions to human welfare (Levy, 2005). A number of textbooks also briefly mentioned the importance of studying the problems of today rather than those of yesterday (Cascio & Aguinis, 2005; Landy & Conte, 2007), the need for organizational cultures to invest in the future (Aamodt, 2007), and the importance of developing research designs that deal with the needs of and changes in society (Krumm, 2001). However, the results of our textbook review indicated that only one mentioned sustainability-related terms. Muchinsky (2008) stated “I-O psychology has a role to play in understanding global warming. Climate change will produce social change on a massive scale, and I-O psychologists can contribute to helping people cope with these changes in their work lives.”

Literature review.  Our review uncovered a dearth of organizational research related to sustainability. Importantly, most of the research we did identify was found in the field of management or environmental psychology rather than in I-O psychology journals. Three streams of research in this area are apparent. These examine organizational attitudes and perceptions toward sustainability, actual sustainability behaviors performed by organizations, and effects of sustainability on organizational practices and outcomes.

Regarding organizational sustainability attitudes, Harris and Crane (2002) conducted management interviews and uncovered several factors associated with organizational culture in relation to sustainability. Their findings indicate that “green culture” ranged from almost nonexistent to strong across organizations. Factors that influenced the level of green culture included the presence of a formal, written statement regarding sustainability, organizational type (e.g., nonprofit vs. commercial organizations), industry macroculture, prevalence of subcultures in the organization (i.e., more subcultures led to less sustainability overall), and beliefs about the link between organizational performance and sustainability. Some participants also indicated that sustainability issues were limited to specific departments (e.g., purchasing, operations). Harris and Crane also uncovered some obstacles to green culture, including the internal politics of the organization. In addition, some participants viewed sustainability issues as a management fad that would not last. Overall, their findings suggest that few managers believe their organizations are truly concerned with sustainability.

Other researchers have examined motives for sustainability or “green change.” Organizational motives for going green include (a) competitiveness, or the impact of being concerned with sustainability issues on profit; (b) legitimization, or an organization’s wish to improve its procedures to match extant values, beliefs, or norms (Suchman, 1995); and (c) ecological responsibility, which derives from the organization’s concern for its obligations toward society (Bansal & Roth, 2000).  Finally, Amel, Manning, and Scott (2009) examined employee perceptions and organizational opportunities on the path to going green.

Research also has examined sustainability behaviors including recycling and driving. Regarding organizational recycling practices, Oskamp et al. (1994) found that 85% of the organizations sampled reported recycling paper, although the programs varied widely, with some only recycling computer and white paper. Lee and De Young (1994) found that employees derive intrinsic satisfaction from participation in office recycling programs. Siero, Boon, Kok, and Siero (1989) examined how employee behavior could be modified to increase positive organizational outcomes. The researchers used training as a tool to teach employees to drive more efficiently, thus saving the organization money. 

A final stream of research examines effects of sustainability. Rusinko (2007) examined how green practices affect organizational outcomes such as company image and found that environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices are related to positive competitive outcomes such as manufacturing cost and product quality. In a study that focused on recruitment, Bauer and Aiman-Smith (1996) found that a pro-environmental culture positively affected organizational recruitment even when potential recruits did not view themselves as holding pro-environmental attitudes. 

It is evident that there is a need in the extant I-O literature for more research on sustainability issues. To reiterate, the small amount of research reviewed here has been published in journals with a management or business focus (e.g., Academy of Management Journal) or with an environmental focus (e.g., Environment and Behavior) rather than in psychology-based journals that I-O psychologists seek to publish (e.g., Journal of Applied Psychology). 


In an attempt to reduce this gap, we have created a list (see Table 1) of areas in which we believe I-O psychology can contribute to sustainability issues. Foremost, psychologists need to conduct more sustainability research (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000). For example, studies examining the link between “green culture” and organizational performance (Harris & Crane, 2002) would provide a great benefit and have many implications. If research supports this link, a logical next step would be to examine the factors that influence an organization’s green culture. For example, studies on the role of person–organization fit might examine whether the match between employees’ and organizations’ sustainability goals and values affect worker and organizational outcomes. Furthermore, an understanding of how to promote and influence the engagement of green behaviors in the workplace would be of great benefit. A plethora of the research I-O psychologists engage in is focused on predicting behaviors (e.g., job performance, citizenship behaviors). Many of these theories and findings may be applicable to understanding the antecedents of sustainable behaviors in the workplace.

Psychologists can also use their knowledge to assist in the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs that are focused on sustainability behaviors (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000). For example, the design and evaluation of training programs focused on sustainable behaviors in the workplace may prove to be of great value to organizational outcomes. Potential questions to be examined include whether employees can be trained to engage in sustainable behaviors, and if so, what are the most promising methods for doing so? Perhaps training leaders to promote sustainable behaviors and rewarding employees who do so will improve organizational sustainability.  

Finally, socially responsible practices on the part of organizations that were once considered discretionary are quickly becoming a business necessity (Altman, 1998). An examination of the extent to which an organization’s green culture and sustainable practices are perceived as socially responsible, and whether this social responsibility results in improved organizational outcomes and corporate reputation, may prove to be a critical area of study.


Campbell and Campbell (2005) suggested that I-O psychology should join other disciplines in working through environmental challenges. We agree and our results support this notion; sustainability is relevant to organizations and relevant to our society. In summary, we share Lefkowitz’s (2008) vision that I-O psychologists need to address a new research topic; “As often as we express scientific and instrumental concerns like ‘is it valid?’ and ‘is it cost effective?’ we should be asking ‘is it the right thing to do?’” (p. 12). We propose that there are many ways I-O psychologists can “do the right thing” through research and applied practice in sustainability issues. These issues are a concern for mainstream society, organizations, and other organizationally related disciplines (e.g., management scholars). It is time that I-O psychology jumps on this important bandwagon. 


     Aamodt, M. G. (2007). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
     Aguinis, H. (in press). Organizational responsibility: Doing good and going well. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
     Altman, B. W. (1998). Corporate community relations in the 1990s: A study in transformation. Business and Society, 37, 221–228.
     Amel, E. L., Manning, C. M., & Scott, B. A.  (2009, April).  In A. H. Huffman (Chair), “Working” through environmental issues: The role of the I-O psychologist.  Symposium presented at the 24th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, New Orleans, LA.
     Bansal, P., & Roth, K. (2000). Why companies go green: A model of ecological responsiveness. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 717–736.
     Bauer, T. N., & Aiman-Smith, L. (1996). Green career choices: The influence of ecological stance on recruiting. Journal of Business and Psychology, 10, 445–458.
     Campbell, J. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2005). Eco-I-O psychology? Expanding our goals to include sustainability. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 43, 23–28.
     Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2008). Research in industrial and organizational psychology from 1963 to 2007: Changes, choices, and trends. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1062–1081.
     Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2005). Applied psychology in human resource management. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
     Esty D. C., & Winston, A. S. (2006). Green to gold. How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. Cumberland, RI: Yale University Press.
     Jex, S. M., & Britt, T. W. (2008). Organizational psychology: A scientist–practitioner approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
     Harris, L. C., & Crane, A. (2002). The greening of organizational culture: Management views on the depth, degree and diffusion of change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 15, 214–236.
     Koppes, L. L. (2007).  SIOP members as citizen leaders. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 44, 25–33.
     Landy, F. L., and Conte, J. M. (2007). Work in the 21st century: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley Blackwell.
     Lee, Y., & De Young, R. (1994). Intrinsic satisfaction derived from office recycling behavior: A case study in Taiwan. Social Indicators Research, 31, 63–76.
     Lefkowitz, J. (1990). The scientist–practitioner model is not enough. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 28, 47–52.   
     Lefkowitz, J. (2008). Explaining the values of organizational psychology to match the quality of its ethics. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 1–15.
     McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2000). Fostering sustainable behavior through community-based social marketing. American Psychologist, 55, 531–537.
     Muchinsky, P. M. (2008). Psychology applied to work: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (9th ed.). Summerfield, NC: Hypergraphic Press.
     Oskamp, S. (2000). A sustainable future for humanity? How can psychology help? American Psychologist, 55, 496–508.
     Oskamp, S., Williams, R., Unipan, J., Steers, N., Mainieri, T., & Kurland, G. (1994). Psychological factors affecting paper recycling by businesses. Environment and Behavior, 26, 477–503.
     Rogelberg, S.G. (2006). Katrina aid and relief effort (KARE). The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 43, 117–118.
     Rusinko, C. A. (2007). Green manufacturing: An evaluation of environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices and their impact on competitive outcomes. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, 54, 445–454.
     Siero, S., Boon, M., Kok, G., & Siero, F. (1989). Modification of driving behavior in a large transport organization: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 417–423. 
     Spector, P. E. (2000). Industrial & organizational psychology: Research and practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
     Suchman, M. C. (1995). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches. Academy of Management Review, 20, 571–610.

Appendix A
I-O Textbook Search List

     Aamodt, M. G. (2007). Industrial/organizational psychology: An applied approach. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
     Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2005). Applied psychology in human resource management, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
     Dubrin, A. J. (2004). Applying Psychology: Individual and Organizational Effectiveness, 6th ed, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
     Krumm, D. (2001). Psychology at Work: An Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
     Jex, S. M., & Britt, T. W. (2008). Organizational psychology: A scientist–practitioner approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
     Levy, P. E. (2005). Industrial/organizational psychology: Understanding the workplace (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
     Muchinsky, P. M. (2006). Psychology applied to work: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth.
     Riggio, R. E. (2008). Introduction to industrial/organizational psychology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall.
     Schultz, D. P., and Schultz, S. E. (2006). Psychology and work today: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
     Spector, P. E. (2008). Industrial and organizational psychology: Research and practice (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

SIOP Discovers Green-Land

Paul M. Muchinsky
Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Professor of Business
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

At the 2009 SIOP conference I had the pleasure and honor of serving as the discussant for a symposium on the role of I-O psychology in the “green movement.”  The following were four major points of discussion.

The baby needs a name.  There is no commonly accepted name for this area of research.  It has been variously referenced as green issues, going green, eco-friendly, global warming, biospheric, climate change, and environmental sustainability (among others).  A name conveys an image, and the multiplicity of names produces an unclear image.  A singular name would facilitate the derivation of an accepted definition or at the least a tight description.

Avoid reductionistic thinking.  Simple research questions invite simple and misguided answers. I believe a useful way to think about this topic is to envision a matrix. One axis would contain relevant indices provided by researchers from the physical sciences (as related to water, energy, pollution, etc.).  The other axis would contain relevant indices from the behavioral and organizational sciences.  Subsequent research may well reveal a broad and complex array of empirical relationships among the concepts under investigation.

Time.  Researchers from the physical sciences have predicted that, if the current rate of global warming continues, in 100 years the oceans will rise many feet above existing levels, caused by the melting of the polar ice caps.  Today this problem would not be dismissed as being unimportant, but how many people today would say this problem is urgent?  Urgency is time based, and the typical units of “urgent time” are seconds, minutes, or hours.  No one reading this issue of TIP will be alive 100 years from now.  Global warming represents a paradox to the human condition.  Environmental issues of today are urgent but not necessarily for the welfare of the current generation.  Psychologically we must develop an urgent sense of stewardship of contemporary ecological issues for the welfare of future generations.

Maturity of research topics.  Competition for publication space in scientific journals is keen. Journal editors and reviewers demand articles based on high-quality research. One primary characteristic of quality is the research has a strong theoretical base.  Behavioral research on global warming lacks the hoary theoretical legacy of mature research topics (as leadership, for example).  If nascent research topics as global warming are held to the same publication standards as the more mature areas of research, scientific contributions in this emerging area will be few in number and of minor practical impact.

I referred to the researchers who contributed to the SIOP symposium as “pioneers.”  Judging by the degree to which environmental issues are making world news, SIOP’s entry into this arena has arrived none too soon.