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A Call for I-O Leadership in “Going Green”

Cathy L. Z. DuBois
Kent State University

David A. DuBois
The Social Design Group

So far, 2010 is shaping up to be the warmest year on record, in the warmest decade ever, since recordkeeping began in the 1880s (Dorrell, 2010). This summer’s Gulf oil spill is among the largest recorded, illustrating the challenges of finding more oil, in ever more distant and difficult locations, to satisfy ever growing demand as more of the world’s 6.8 billion people modernize their lifestyles. As the world’s oil supplies struggle to keep up with demand, this translates into an 87% increase in U.S. gasoline prices in the last decade (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2010). Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress this summer declined to address an energy bill.

These events summarize in a nutshell the current situation. We’ve had the technology for decades to switch to more climate-friendly, clean, and cost efficient alternative fuel sources. The costs of doing so, although substantial, appear much less than the costs of maintaining the “business as usual” scenario, especially when the security costs of ensuring stability in the regions in which these supplies exist are considered. So neither technology nor economics are the major bottlenecks to addressing the issues of energy and the environment—people are. And that’s the heart of this story—how and why social scientists should engage these vital issues because social scientists possess the crucial set of technologies that are required to move the country forward. Although the challenges of energy and the environment are large, so are the opportunities. 

A New Era at Work: The Natural Environment Begins
Driving the Business Environment

An important factor for engaging organizations in environmental sustainability (ES) is to establish the business case for doing so. The business imperative can emerge from a variety of sources: responding to customer and supplier requests; finding market opportunities for green products, services, and brands; maintaining competitive advantage through cost efficiencies achieved through energy efficiency and waste reduction strategies; meeting government regulations; and attracting and retaining high-performing talent by providing an attractive, compelling, and rewarding culture.

Increasingly, changes in the business environment are also being driven directly by the natural environment. This summer’s oil spill is but one example where a major segment of the fishing and tourist industries suffered significant blows to their economic health from the environmental damage inflicted by the oil rig accident. Similarly, climate change is impacting the agricultural and tourism industries by affecting natural habitats and normal weather patterns. Hunting and fishing patterns in Canada, for example, have been affected as the numbers of cold-water game fish have decreased from the warming, leading to sharply reduced tourism and the closing of fishing lodges.

Many companies have already adapted operational practices to accommodate higher fuel prices. As the impacts of global peak oil (the point at which maximum oil production begins to decline) take hold, energy prices are expected to increase even more rapidly, triggering further organizational adaptation. Although many take a “wait and see” attitude towards predictions about energy price increases and climate change, the difficulty with this position is that meaningful responses to these challenges can take more than a decade to build out. Wind energy is a good example, where the timeline for building new transmission lines and bringing new power sources to bear can easily exceed a decade. Waiting until there are sharp price increases before beginning to address such vital issues is maladaptive behavior. Social scientists are needed to unfreeze the individual and organizational impasses that block proactive adaptive responses to these major challenges.

There are many success stories to share in this new business environment. Walmart, for example, created a model program for waste management and engaged one local store to test and refine it. Within a single year, they reduced the waste hauled to landfills by over 90%, reducing their costs by tens of thousands annually, while reducing their carbon footprint and increasing employee and community engagement in their store. The challenge now is to build industry trends from successful cases such as this one.

The Nature of Organizational ES Initiatives

Organizational ES initiatives are as varied as the organizations in which they reside, and they typically reflect the manner in which environmental issues became salient to the organization. ES initiatives can be inspired from a variety of angles, by workers at the top, bottom, or middle of the organization, or from customer or supplier demand.

For example, it was customer inquiry for environmentally sustainable products that inspired the creation of an ES task force at Interface, a global producer of modular carpet tiles. Ray Anderson, the company’s founder and chairman, gleaned his vision for ES at Interface from Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce. Ray took the message of this book, that the industrial system is laying waste to the earth, to heart and became determined to change the way Interface did business. He grasped the fundamental ways in which a sustainability focus would impact his business and provided strong executive leadership for a company-wide ES initiative (link to online video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OwMmem2m60).

Such strong leadership from the top is rare, and most current ES initiatives are more limited in scope. They more commonly focus on specific aspects like increasing energy efficiency within buildings, grounds and transportation, waste reduction and recycling, or the design/production/marketing of products that appeal to the environmentally conscious consumer. These more focused ES initiatives tend to house their champions in corresponding functional areas of the firm, with ES-related job responsibilities designated either as an entire job (e.g., a sustainability manager) or simply comprising parts of existing jobs (e.g., organizational architect, production manager, communications and marketing manager, etc.).

An Opportunity for HR

Our interactions with leaders of/participants in organizational ES initiatives have highlighted the all-too frequent absence of the human resources function from these initiatives. This gap has likely occurred because (a) most of the early ES initiatives have focused on the “low-hanging fruit” of acquiring new technology to increase energy efficiency or decrease waste production, with little recognition of the significant role that behavior can play in such initiatives; and (b) most early ES initiatives have been limited to targeted areas rather than organization wide.

It’s interesting that the success of technology in addressing ES challenges has actually highlighted the need for attention to human behavior; that is, where technology is lacking, or where workers need to be motivated to use existing technology, it is clear that addressing behavior is as critical as addressing technology. As recognition of the importance of employee behavior to organizational ES initiatives grows, the involvement of I-O and HR experts becomes paramount.

Organization-wide ES initiatives are in many ways similar to organizational safety and health initiatives. The goal is to get employees throughout the organization to “own” the importance of their organization’s ES initiative as well as their personal contributions to the ES initiative. (Interface has successfully accomplished this down to the factory floor; link to online video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-syic9dvqo.) For enduring and substantive success, three components are critical: top management support, allocation of sufficient resources, and buy-in at all levels of employees. Buy-in is achieved through systematic organizational culture change, which entails implementation of a variety of organizational initiatives that span all levels of employees and includes elements to hold individuals accountable and secure employee engagement. Such a systems approach requires design and implementation expertise from I-O psychologists.

How ES Initiatives Impact Work and Require I-O Interventions

Targeted ES initiatives, such as those focused specifically on increasing office-paper recycling or reducing energy use, will have limited impact on how work is done throughout the organization. Yet even these initiatives require significant HR involvement for optimal effectiveness. For example, the successful work of environmental psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith,1999) lays the foundation for how the HR function should go beyond the standard approach of employee communications to support the desired employee action. Rather, HR should take the lead in designing, developing, and evaluating a more sophisticated effort to gain employee commitment and secure desired changes through social marketing.

More broadly construed ES initiatives will impact in fundamental ways how employees do their work and can require support from the full array of HR functions. For example, when a school’s ES initiative motivates the cafeteria to “buy fresh, buy local,” a cascade of changes occurs. Meal planning, food procurement and storage, as well as food preparation will require new skills and equipment. The HR function must initiate a variety of tasks to support these changes, such as job design/analysis, recruitment and selection, training and performance management, safety and health, and compensation.

ES initiatives also have the capacity to change how workers feel about their jobs and the inner resources they bring to their jobs. The president of a hospital in Cleveland told us that their ES initiative had been the primary driver of innovation throughout their organization since its inception. He was surprised at how significantly it had impacted the jobs of all employees and delighted about how the innovation had led to increased engagement and productivity throughout his workforce. In this case, the HR function was highly involved in organizational culture change efforts.

Current Practice: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Our conversations with a variety of HR executives over the past months about their departments’ involvement with their organizations’ ES initiatives have both inspired and entertained us and confirmed that the state of practice is all over the map. The rare HR executive can talk at length about their role in shaping, implementing, and supporting their organizations’ ES initiatives. Not surprising, this occurs in organizations in which HR functions as a strategic partner in organizational success.

Most executives have directed us to their organization’s sustainability manager, of whom they are aware but do not deal with directly. In other words, their organizations have ES initiatives, but the HR function plays no role in them. Some HR executives are simply unaware of their organizations’ ES initiatives, even though these ES initiatives are featured on their organizations’ Web sites. It’s not clear if these executives are truly out of the loop as to what’s going on in their organizations or whether what’s on the Internet is simply window dressing for consumers, and the organizations truly lack an ES initiative. To bring up the rear is the HR executive who reacted to our inquiry with an emotional tirade about how global warming is a hoax! Clearly, there is work to be done.

Our interviews with HR vendors at SIOP were surprisingly discouraging. We asked each of the vendors who might possibly have something to offer to support an ES initiative whether they had such a product, and none of them did. Some vendors could point out what their organization did to be environmentally sustainable (bring ceramic cups to work, turn off/unplug computers, etc.), but no one could speak to having incorporated anything into their selection systems, job analysis systems, engagement surveys, and so on that addressed ES initiatives. They stated that their customers haven’t yet asked for anything like this, which no doubt reflects the current lack of HR involvement in organizational ES initiatives. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of them (or you) taking a proactive approach to developing what will (hopefully) soon be requested.

Gaps to Fill: How I-O Psychologists Can Contribute

I-O psychologists hold a variety of positions from which they can influence organizational practices. I-O psychologists who are positioned as HR executives have the opportunity to help shape their organizations’ ES initiatives. This will require that they reach across functional boundaries to involve their HR functions in the ES initiatives. In all but those rare cases in which the ES initiative is organization wide and HR is truly a strategic partner in business initiatives, the HR function will likely not be invited to the party, simply because it might not be obvious to organizational others what HR can contribute. In such cases, HR executives will need to make a case for the importance of behavior change and the key role that HR practices can/must play in obtaining necessary employee involvement and secure behavior change.

I-O psychologists who work as HR specialists and consultants will be the ones who put together the employee systems required to support ES initiatives. They too can take a leadership role in making ES initiatives successful  by thinking expansively and innovatively about how their work can speed the trajectory and effectiveness of organizational change. Early ES initiatives that are focused on one thing (e.g., recycling, turning off computers at night, etc.) are often followed by the formation of an ES task force, and perhaps later by the development of an organization-wide strategic plan for sustainability. The key is to think proactively and be one or more steps ahead of the customer, whether in an HR functional area or in a consulting context. Insert yourself productively in the process. Don’t wait until the customer asks for your help; think ahead and sell the customer on the benefits of what you have to offer.

I-O psychologist researchers can seek out the growing research funding for sustainability-related issues, and opportunities to team with researchers in other disciplines are available. Engineers and public policy leaders are recognizing that behavior change has a key role in the ES frontier. Much of this research calls for thinking beyond jobs and organizations to consideration of communities. What we know about human behavior is needed in the broader context of society, and opportunities to share our knowledge are growing. For example, the Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC) Conference that we have attended for the past 2 years is a delightful conglomeration of research and practice that spans corporate, academic, and government sectors, and brings together researchers across a variety of disciplines, from behavioral economics to psychology, sociology, marketing, management, government, political science, and engineering.

From Heads Down to Heads Up: ES as a Team Sport

The very nature of ES issues is that the challenges they pose require expertise from a wide array of disciplines. Hence, ES is by nature a team sport that can’t be owned by one discipline or one functional area within a company. Much of I-O work requires a heads-down focus on detail, which I-O psychologists are well trained to do. But ES issues require that we step out of our narrow silos to engage with other functional areas within organizations and other disciplines for research. ES is everyone’s responsibility. As such, ES provides both the requirement and the pathway through which I-O psychologists can expand their boundaries and engage in a broader world.

The pursuit of environmental goals, such as reducing the carbon footprint or managing waste, quickly leads us to connect with a very broad array of departments, organizations, and people—from facilities management and transportation to purchasing, food, and waste management. Just as quickly, we end up outside the organization talking with customers and the supply chain; engineering and architecture firms; local, state and federal government; consulting groups and nonprofits; and even collaborating with competing firms. In the process we learn a lot about a business, its organizational context, and many of the technical issues associated with effective environmental management. In addition to expanding the arena of influence for I-O interventions, we believe that understanding these expanded organizational and natural ecologies will contribute much to our science.

Start From Where You Are

You don’t need a degree in environmental science to join ES efforts. David began his work in environmental sustainability through his civic work—helping a rural community of 10,000 define their vision of city-scale sustainability and writing grants to support their strategic planning process to “go green.” Cathy got interested in ES through the community work that David was doing. She engaged her students in discussions about the impacts of sustainability on HR practices and got significantly involved in her university’s ES initiative and in AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education). Our stories are similar to other I-O psychologists who do ES work and research.

To get involved, learning about climate change issues and corresponding organizational impacts is a good starting point. Read classic ES-related books, and pay attention to ES-related news (see below for a list of seminal books and useful Web sites). Look into what your organization is doing with regard to ES and consider what role you can play, or offer to assist a nonprofit that is engaging in this work. Understanding the business reasons to respond to ES issues with organizational change is the fundamental basis upon which I-O professionals can interface with employees across the variety of functional areas that participate in ES initiatives. Apply the technologies and theories with which  you are familiar (i.e., training, motivation, job analysis, performance measurement and management, team building, organizational development and culture change, leadership, etc.) to ES challenges. Finally, reach out to those of us who are doing ES research; we welcome you to our all-too-small group.

A Possible Green Agenda for SIOP

Here’s a short list of possibilities for how SIOP could more fully engage these issues:

  • Commit to making environmental sustainability a priority
  • Go global: Learn from leaders in countries that have outpaced the U.S.
  • Aggregate and disseminate existing best practices
  • Fund research to develop appropriate HR–ES support systems
  • Provide tools to assist I-O and HR professionals with ES initiatives
  • Facilitate ES-related networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities
  • Dig into the business case for ES initiatives across functional areas
  • Pursue transdisciplinary ES-related research funding
  • Collaborate with a broad range of disciplines in addressing the social and cultural bottlenecks that impede effective environmentally sustainable policies and practice
  • Become involved with the wide array of campus sustainability centers, such as the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford
  • Inform Congress, federal agencies, and corporations about the capabilities of I-O with respect to contributing to energy and environmental issues
  • Link more closely with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

HR professionals increasingly look to SHRM for day-to-day HR system support. SHRM has made great strides in the past decade to improve their professionalism, accessibility, visibility, and the substance of the tools and expertise they offer. Because their link to practitioners is so strong, strengthening the ties between SIOP to SHRM can be a practical means to funnel I-O research findings to all levels of HR practitioners and thereby provide leadership in the development of expertise and tools used to support ES initiatives.

SIOP has already taken several steps to recognize the importance of the role of I-O in addressing ES within organizations. Two prior TIP articles addressed I-O and ES: Campbell & Campbell, 2005; and Huffman, Watrous-Rodriguez, Henning & Berry, 2009. The 2009 and 2010 SIOP conferences featured several sessions related to ES, and the 2011 SIOP conference will allocate the Thursday theme track to managing HR for sustainability. These constitute a nice beginning, but the urgency with which actions are needed to maintain economic productivity, to protect our environment, and to ensure our security should compel stepped-up efforts. Again, the crucial technologies that are slowing the deployment of renewal energy and other green technologies are social technologies.

Perhaps the bottom line is that ES provides the opportunity for the full array of I-O psychologists to take initiative, to assert leadership in a variety of ways—for leadership is truly needed to rapidly speed along necessary changes at the individual, organizational, and social levels. The opportunities are many, varied, and exciting. In this sense, I-O has as much to gain from participating in environmental sustainability as it has to contribute to sustainable solutions for organizations and communities.

Social science and practice lie at the heart of effective adaptation to a changing natural and business environment. ES challenges are compelling, and many opportunities for participation are readily available. Help I-O make a difference.

Seminal Books

     Anderson, R. (2009). Confessions of a radical industrialist: Profits, people, purpose—doing business by respecting the earth. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
     Esty, D., & Winston, A. (2008). Green to gold: How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
     Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, flat & crowded: Why we need a green revolution—and how it can renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
     Hawken, P. (1994). The ecology of commerce: A declaration of sustainability. New York: Harper Collins.
     Hawken, P., Lovins, A., & Lovins, H. (1999). Natural capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.
     McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
     McKenzie-Mohr, D. (1999). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Useful Web Sites

     Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE): http://www.aashe.org/
     Behavior, Energy & Climate Change (BECC):
     Doug McKenzie-Mohr, PhD. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: Community-Based Social Marketing.
     ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (formerly the “International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives”):


     Campbell, J. E., & Campbell, D. E. (2005). Eco-I-O psychology? Expanding our goals to include sustainability. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 43, 23–28. 
    Dorrell, O. (2010, July 15).World sizzles to record for the year.  USA Today. Retrieved from
     Huffman, A. H., Watrous-Rodriguez, K. M., Henning, J. B., & Berry, J. (2009). “Working” through environmental issues: The role of the I-O psychologist. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 47, 27–35.
     McKenzie-Mohr, D. (1999). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing.  British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.
     U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2010). Retail gasoline historical prices. Retrieved from