HR Strategy & Leadership

HR as a Force for Good: Driving Positive Change in Business & Society

By Dieter Veldsman, Marna van der Merwe

In brief

In this article, we will discuss:

  • How HR can be established as a force for good that impacts business and society
  • The six areas that HR can have an impact in
  • Four actions HR can take to get started.

Globally, organizations are already experiencing the future of work. As the external environment becomes more volatile and unpredictable, organizations grapple with challenges that reactive actions can no longer address. Instead, systemic issues and external influences are challenging the sustainability of organizations. 

For HR, this presents an opportunity to make a lasting impact on organizations, societies, and individuals.

This reality requires HR to show up and contribute differently than before. Beyond just strategically partnering with the business, HR has a unique role in addressing issues that impact the sustainability of organizations and society, communities, and the operating environment in which organizations find themselves. As HR professionals, this also means stepping up to the expectations that employees hold us accountable for.

But how can HR be a catalyst for good and still make a business impact? How do we balance performance and productivity with humane and people-centric workspaces? How do we meet the needs of collective communities while still managing risk?

Establishing HR as a ‘Force for Good’

We believe that HR can be a force for good that balances the needs of individuals, organizations, and society to deliver mutually beneficial value. This is not achieved through good intentions and mission statements but rather through taking action and establishing practices that promote and enable change, while holding all role players accountable.

The consequences will be dire if HR does not step into this role. Higher unemployment, continued economic decline, rising poverty, extensive skills shortages, and rising inequality are inevitable if HR does not act as an active agent for change. 

This doesn’t imply that HR is not there to drive business strategy and performance. If there is no business, there is no HR. Instead, we want to promote that HR acts on behalf of individuals and companies to contribute towards building a society that can prosper. This will mean thinking about the broader benefit for all and not only the interests of one.

A ‘Force for Good’ in action

HR holds a distinct position to make a contribution and impact across six wide-ranging areas:

HR's contribution and impact on society and on the business.

1. Access to work 

Access to equal work opportunities remains a crucial challenge for many individuals. This refers to equal opportunities to work, regardless of background, identity, or circumstances. Exclusion from the workforce is mitigated by legislation to some extent, but in most cases, systemic barriers and biases exclude these individuals. Additionally, the hidden workforce is estimated to comprise 17% of the US labor market, equating to 27 million employees. 

Excluding significant parts of society from the workforce can lead to lower productivity, hinder economic growth, and perpetuate a cycle of inequality across generations.

Unequal opportunities also limit individuals from realizing their full potential and utilizing their capabilities, resulting in a lack of equal outcomes and social mobility. HR is vital in ensuring HR practices promote and encourage equal access to opportunity and actively drive greater access to skills and opportunities.

This begins with rethinking work design and how minimum requirements for job success are determined. Stating that a degree is a minimum requirement for a role already excludes more than 64% of the workforce from the available talent market.

The move to skills-based approaches has shown the possibility of rethinking the concept of work and tapping into more available skills and a broader talent market – not constrained by traditional job requirements. Similarly, assessing hiring practices and eliminating unconscious bias (either through humans or technology) will become increasingly important for HR.

Case study examples

1. Girls in Tech

Girls in Tech is a global non-profit organization committed to closing the gender gap by developing female talent in the technology sector. The organization has 130,000 members in 50 cities and across 42 countries. The organization provides professional development courses and job boards to aid female technology talent in finding opportunities.

2. Mukuru

“Our organization makes sure that people from diverse backgrounds have equal opportunities and experience no barriers to employment. We are committed to ensuring that our employees represent our client base; hence, we intend to mirror diversity. This entails the work that we do with specific reference to:

    • Alignment of policies and practices to ensure that possible talent does not experience barriers to entry

    • We utilize a variety of methodologies to get access to talent across our geographies (i.e., employee referrals, local advertising, local partnerships, etc.)

    • Fairness is paramount to how we drive our people processes in alignment with our organizational purpose and values

    • At work, we are committed to creating a climate where people see each other as people and connect as human beings. We encourage and drive open sharing and dialogue across the business and also have diversity training, intending to elevate awareness, knowledge, and social connection of our people with each other, our customers, and within the communities that we serve

    • We have flexible work arrangements and offer hybrid working for most of our people

    • We offer opportunities for unemployed learners within our business through opportunities like relief work (i.e., contract work within our call center, leadership, and internships). Our ability to provide workplace exposure, access to learning and experience, and allowing our leaders to mentor and coach young talent in various faculties is a few ways that we impact society.”

Savina Harillall, Chief People Officer, Mukuru 

What can HR do

  1. Incorporate skills-based hiring and career practices
  2. Review current job requirements to reflect the criteria required for job success accurately (move from credentials to competence)
  3. Drive the awareness, development, and visibility of transferable skills
  4. Extend recruitment efforts into new and non-traditional talent pools focused on accessing the hidden workforce pools
  5. Uncover and remove unintentional biases and barriers to entry for specific groups or talent pools.

2. Equality and fairness

Beyond access to work, inequality and unfairness transpire in the form of unfair treatment, exclusion, and, most notably, pay inequity. Gender and pay equality continue to be an issue for HR to address. The WEF reports that out of 146 countries, only 68.4% have closed the gender pay gap effectively. 

For organizations, this results in retention challenges for crucial talent and a lack of diversity and inclusion. For societies, gender pay inequality leads to the marginalization of groups and reinforces gender discrimination in work, education, and societal settings. The PwC Women in Work Index highlights that it will take OECD countries almost 50 years to close the pay gap if we continue on the current path. This is not good enough.

Even though this issue is complex, there must be transparency about how organizations plan to close and diminish the gap. HR is a leading voice in this debate, yet it needs to work with finance teams to understand how to address the current issue practically.

Similarly, HR can play a role when organizations employ employees from developing countries to avoid wage exploitation and other exploitative practices (such as recruitment scams and illegal intermediaries). Advocating for fair pay for equal work also means focusing on paying a “living wage” and putting policies in place to ensure job security for these workers, who are often subject to unfavorable work arrangements. This call goes beyond labor legislation in these regions and holds the organization to a higher standard than what is required as a minimum requirement.

Case study example

A multi-national insurance organization managed to close the gender pay gap over a period of three years. Using people analytics and making pay trends visible, they introduced transparency and fairness into their pay practices beyond the legislation requirements.

What can HR do

  1. Implement continuous monitoring mechanisms to provide real-time insight into pay gaps
  2. Actively work with finance to bridge the pay and gender gap
  3. Ensure remuneration philosophies intentionally focus on fairness and pay equity and are transparent about these
  4. Adopt fair pay principles in developing countries that go beyond minimum wages but focus on a “living wage”
  5. When employing migrant workers, implement policies around recruitment agencies, contract terms and conditions, work conditions, and pay principles to ensure equal treatment and access to work.

3. Human-AI interaction 

The role of HR in guiding organizations to adopt AI responsibly is paramount in creating a society that responsibly works with AI to the benefit of humankind. Beyond the technology and ethics concerns, the role of HR extends to supporting the transition of individuals to work with AI as a companion in work. HR also needs to address employees’ fears of job loss due to AI technology, and creating bridging skills paths to new opportunities has to take priority for the current workforce.

For future generations, we need closer collaboration with grassroots education to develop skills to work in a more fluid, technological, and ambiguous work environment. In the past, internship and graduate programs were only available to large corporations. However, HR should partner with other organizations that make this talent pool accessible to small to medium-sized enterprises through incubation programs and collaborative partnerships.

Case study example

A European telecommunications provider runs a 12-month development program for their blue-collar workforce to gain the skills to transition to technology careers. The program allocates 20% of their time to reskilling, with an assessment of proficiency and competence after 12 months to determine the readiness of the individual to transition to a technology career path.

What can HR do

  1. Ensure HR develops its digital competency to understand technology and its implications
  2. Actively educate the workforce on how to work with AI, specifically focusing on ethical guardrails and conduct
  3. Drive skills-bridging programs that allow employees impacted by AI to adapt and move to new opportunities
  4. Provide input into grassroots development programs that target future skills requirements to ensure that AI skills are proactively developed and future workers are adequately equipped.

4. Voice for societal issues 

As the lines between work and life have become blurred, so has the divide between organizations and the communities that they operate in. These communities hold expectations of organizations to show sensitivity to the issues they face and to demonstrate solidarity and support through action. HR will have to take a role in helping organizations find their voice and stance on critical social issues and can no longer remain absent from the public narrative and debate. 

Even though organizations do not need a voice on all matters, HR must help them put practices in place that prove how the organization lives their perspectives. This directly reflects the organization’s culture and values and what its clients and employees can expect regarding pertinent societal issues. Guarding against diversity-washing, HR can ensure that these commitments are authentic and lead to tangible action.

Social issues such as the global refugee crisis and changes brought through climate migration, gender-based violence against women, and human rights violations call upon organizations to take a stance and take action.

Case study example

Various organizations such as Amazon, Ikea, and Cargill have implemented multiple programs to drive the employment and integration of refugees. Manpower Group has committed to supporting 45,000 refugees with gainful employment by providing upskilling opportunities for 15000 people while actively placing 30,000 into employment opportunities with their clients.

What can HR do

  1. Understand the social issues in the communities they serve
  2. Initiate programs to address specific needs that are relevant to employees and consumers of the organization
  3. Align the value proposition and benefits to the causes that the organization champions to showcase solidarity (e.g., access to EAPs, employee transport services in high crime areas, flexible work arrangements and leave types to accommodate life ‘disruptions,’ etc.)
  4. Develop upskilling, integration, and empowerment programs for vulnerable employees

5. Human wellbeing 

Our HR Trends for 2024 discussed the productivity paradox and the balancing act between wellbeing and productivity. This goes beyond simply ensuring that organizations can get the most out of employees; instead, it considers the role that decent work plays in the overall wellbeing of individuals.

Burnout has been called an international crisis, affecting over 50% of employees worldwide. This is a result of chronic workplace stress, lack of adequate mental health support, and limited education on mental wellbeing. Mental health issues can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover rates, directly impacting business outcomes.

As organizations grapple with the challenges of driving higher productivity, providing the required supporting structures will become even more paramount. This entails a different perspective on how we speak about wellbeing and how it is destigmatized and incorporated into practice to maintain human dignity and respect.

What can HR do

  1. Educate the business on responsible productivity and the economic impact of this
  2. Develop a data-driven workforce and capacity planning to understand the productivity/wellbeing threshold
  3. Critically look at factors such as workload, flexibility, and other stressors that can impact employees’ mental health and address these
  4. Equip managers with the necessary tools to identify mental health concerns proactively
  5. Provide proactive support to manage employee wellbeing through structured programs and awareness campaigns.

6. Climate adaptation 

The effects of climate change are already being felt worldwide, including more intense heat waves, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events. This poses new challenges to organizations and the working conditions of employees, in particular for physical laborers. Factors like safety, dignified and sanitary working conditions, and adaptive and flexible work arrangements are critical to ensuring business continuity and economic viability that is not at the cost of employees. 

HR, has a role to play in guiding organizations in developing climate adaptive practices and adopting new ways of work that enable business continuity. Again, this goes beyond internally focused green behavior toward a more strategic and active role in guiding business responsibility regarding sustainability.

This will also extend to enabling greener supply chains and working with other stakeholders to act responsibly and reputably. 

Case study example

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) had to adapt its operations with regard to the impact of climate change. They produce outerwear and, given seasonal changes, had to adjust the mix between making summer and winter products and reducing excess stock. The company uses seasonal trends as a basis for business planning.

What can HR do

  1. Get involved in sustainability work internal and external to the organization
  2. Build the business case for climate adaptive practices and how they link to business continuity
  3. Flexible work arrangements and contingent workers contribute to organizations dealing with unforeseen disruptions and challenges.

Where can HR start

In the past, new ideas in HR have followed a typical hype cycle. These usually start with enthusiastic momentum but falter as HR professionals struggle to demonstrate the business impact and benefit. This also holds true for various Corporate Social Initiatives (CSI) and feel-good projects.

If the HR for Good movement is going to be different, we need to adopt a different approach:

  1. Be specific about where HR can contribute in your organizational context: Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, HR professionals should consider the organization’s context and identify the value drivers that will impact their context most. In the past, we have gone too broad, leading to inaction – for this movement, our approach should rather be to focus on small wins that cumulatively lead to more significant changes.
  2. Demonstrate the impact by linking to broader ESG initiatives: We need to clearly state the business case of where we choose to focus and how this relates to more general environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns within the organization. Using these frameworks helps to ground the work we are doing and reinforces how it integrates with the rest of the organization beyond HR.
  3. Make changes that are within the control of HR first: Immediate changes can be made to practices where HR has direct control. Hiring practices, finding new talent pools, and advocating for changing strategies regarding the aging workforce. Similarly, policy changes to HR practice can be prioritized to deliver short-term impact with a specific focus on recruitment, organizational design, and skills practices.
  4. Building new knowledge and skills in these domains: For HR to drive change, we must incorporate new knowledge and skills to understand how humanitarian and social organizations operate. This can be incremental over time, but to play our part, we need to be able to understand how these environments work and how to become part of industry bodies advocating for change.
6 areas HR can contribute in as a force of good.

Wrapping up

HR is uniquely positioned to advocate and drive change to benefit businesses and society. Taking up this mantle is no longer optional, as we see employment, climate and safety risks becoming commonplace. HR can be a force for good, but we need tangible and responsible action. 

HR as a Force for Good: Driving Positive Change in Business & Society

About the Authors

Dieter VeldsmanChief HR Scientist
Dr. Dieter Veldsman is an Organizational Psychologist with 15+ years of experience across the HR value chain and lifecycle, having worked for and consulted with various organizations in EMEA, APAC, and LATAM. He has held the positions of Group Chief People Officer, Organizational Effectiveness Executive, Director of Consulting Solutions, and Chief Research Scientist. He is a regular speaker on the topics of Strategic HR, Future of Work, Employee Experience, and Organizational Development.
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Marna van der MerweHR Subject Matter Expert
Dr. Marna van der Merwe is an Organizational Psychologist and Subject Matter Expert at AIHR. She has extensive experience in Human Resources, Organizational Effectiveness and Strategic Talent Management. She is a researcher, published author and regular conference speaker in the areas of talent management, experience design, as well as the changing nature of careers. Marna holds a PhD in Organizational Psychology, with a specific focus on talent management and careers in the future of work.
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