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Championing Social Sustainability for Impactful ESG

With the social dimension in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG); increasingly evolving in importance in recent times, it is interesting to consider the implications for HR leaders in Irish SMEs and the different ways we can help to drive diversity, inclusion and equality.

This focus, of course, not only includes staff members within Irish SMEs but should also consider the social impact or benefits on the wider local community in addition to the supply chain, should your organisation deliver or create products, goods or services.

This is because more and more, social issues are taking centre stage with external stakeholders holding a vested interest in the ethics of a company they may be considering investing in.

With the ‘S’ in ESG all about creating a better world for everyone in it, it makes sense that as HR professionals we should strive to drive social sustainability practices within our SME. Not only does a people-centric approach contribute to a better world around us, but an inclusive and diverse company also helps to attract and retain top-tier talent.


The Role of HR in Social Sustainability

ESG has certainly surged in terms of its prominence since its inception in 2005. We have mentioned how the social governance aspect is beginning to truly shape decision-making, which is interesting as it has been described as being more difficult to quantify than other areas of ESG in the past.

This is in contrast to environmental factors which have arguably taken centre stage up until recently. This is possible because environmental factors are quantifiable – they are potentially easier to track and even potentially correct, with discussions surrounding sustainable energy solutions, climate change and dangerous greenhouse gas emissions rightfully under the spotlight.

So when did the ‘S’ in ESG begin to build so much traction, and how can we lead with a social purpose and integrate ESG excellence into our strategies?

The S in ESG – A Turning Point

Firstly, the ‘S’ in ESG certainly seemed to receive more attention during the pandemic, as concerns over employee well-being, an increased sense of community, and more emphasis than ever on health and wellbeing, equality, employee safety and employee benefits rose to the front of the agenda. Whilst these issues have always been a major consideration for HR professionals, the public was suddenly particularly invested in companies that displayed positive examples of social sustainability and a duty of care towards employees. Those companies which were seen as acting as immoral or unethical, faced scrutiny led by social media.

In fact, with social media having become a constant in our lives, we are arguably living in a time of ‘hyper transparency.’ As Benedict Haslam in ‘The Importance of Prioritising the S in ESG,’ mused back in 2022, ‘companies must consider how they create value for stakeholders beyond stakeholders.’

ESG diversity
Indeed Michael Collins, Director of Government Affairs, M&G plc and Chair of the IRSG ESG workstream, explains in a report by the International Regulatory Strategy Group in association with KPMG: “Companies – often guided by public policy – have made real progress in achieving a better understanding of environmental impact and governance standards and in ensuring those standards are met. But social factors have not been given the same attention – until now.

“The unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests and the #MeToo movement have each been powerful recent drivers for this increased recognition of the need for social change and of the important contribution that business has to make. Social issues are now among the most pressing for companies in all markets as stakeholders, both internal and external, seek to understand how the firm they work for, buy from or invest in is treating the people whose lives its operations touch.” Michael Collins

Transition in Consumer Trends

There has also been a notable transition in consumer trends, with a real focus and preference for transparently made products and practices which promote sustainability. For example, one need only consider the current preference consumers are displaying for purchasing ethically produced garments or sustainable clothing options from the likes of Vinted as opposed to so-called ‘fast fashion’ online retail brands. This comes after media scrutiny revealed the uncomfortable, and at times unethical, working conditions such factory employees may have been subjected to in the past, such as low pay (beneath minimum wage), hazardous working conditions, as well as lengthy shifts with limited breaks.

One prominent example is when the factory called Rana Plaza infamously collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, which arguably caused many consumers who may not have been conscious before of their consumer habits, to suddenly take stock on the repercussions further down the supply chain.

Prioritising Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

As well as the strong preference for transparently made products, in a similar way there has been a transference in investor sentiment towards more ethical investments, as well as a preference for companies who prioritise diversity, inclusion, equity and talent development.

The role of the HR leader when it comes to social sustainability is key as not only can we help to hold our organisation to account, it has also been shown that increased levels of diversity and inclusion help to attract and retain talent and drive performance.

This connection is well researched, with one study revealing companies with higher diversity in management earn 38 per cent more of their revenues from products and services compared to companies with lower diversity – as explored by Fiona Buckley, Associate Faculty with the Irish Management Institute.

Gender diversity has been associated with benefits such as increased profitability, improved corporate governance, enhanced innovation and better decision-making, as pointed out by Women in Business in ‘Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Ireland.’

With this in mind, the impact of HR policies on in-work poverty and working conditions in supply chains is invaluable and should include the accurate reporting of diversity in leadership teams – or lack thereof. This is in addition to transparency and openness about executive pay and, vitally, ensuring ethical practices are followed in keeping with Irish law and regulations.

Ensuring ethical practices are followed includes preventing abuse within supply chains, such as modern slavery, as well as having strong whistleblowing policies and procedures in place for any staff members who have concerns around the organisation.

Employees at the office

Building a People-Centric ESG Strategy

HR leaders should ensure employee morale and job satisfaction are kept high and of course, help drive measures to ensure inclusion, diversion and equity within the workplace and across the wider community.

This can be done by making diversity a priority and integrating it into the SME’s mission, values and business strategy. To actively promote diversity and inclusion, HR professionals must set measurable goals and objectives for inclusivity within the organisation – and strive to maintain them. It is also important to make such goals and progress publicly available in a bid for transparency and to hold the company accountable.

HR leaders can also champion diversity by conducting training programmes to raise awareness and promote fair decision-making in a bid to stamp out even unconscious bias, in addition to outright gender discrimination.

Mentorship programs are extremely important, including internal company programs which encourage upskilling and confidence building, as well as networking opportunities for staff members.

HR departments can not only take a central role in managing such mentorship programs, but it is also an exciting opportunity to reach out to local schools and universities with work experience opportunities and workshops which may help encourage a more diverse and inclusive workplace for STEM subjects and careers.

Enhancing Employee Engagement through CSR and Volunteering

One example of enhancing employee engagement through volunteering is when MSD chose Teen-Turn, a charity in Ireland helping young girls to get involved in STEM, as its Neighbour of Choice. As well as pledging money in support of the group, MSG encouraged its employees to volunteer by mentoring students in exchange for additional hours of paid annual leave.

Mastercard also held an annual Intercultural Day, championed in Dublin by the company’s vice-president of HR, Ann-Marie Clyne who encouraged HR leaders to not only consider diversity as gender or ethnicity but to get more personal. Clyne said the definition of diversity “needs to evolve to include the characteristics, personal and professional skills and life experiences we cannot see about a person.”

Clyne speaks encouragingly of the importance of the workplace providing an open and inclusive environment to the point “a company should be a place where people can bring their whole selves to work, and where everyone’s voice is heard.” Clyne explains this cultural diversity extends to hiring from ‘non-traditional backgrounds’ which has led to Mastercard’s Dublin data science team having a DJ, a graphic designer and a writer on the team – among others.

ESG - Sustainability - Cleaning the beach
Not only is employee volunteering an invaluable way for HR leaders to co-ordinate social sustainability practices, but it also allows employees themselves the opportunity to ‘upskill’ in other areas, for example by helping to co-ordinate events or by conducting a speech aimed at work experience students in an attempt to encourage more young girls and women to pursue a career in tech.

If a candidate has a passionate interest in encouraging more women into tech, this may act as a deciding factor when considering a job offer between the SME and a competitor. This is because more and more, employees recognise the importance of a company which places a focus on diversity, inclusion and equity and which offers upskilling opportunities and subsequently, career progression.

Evidence-based insights convey how such important practices boost organisational loyalty and overall business performance. With all of this in mind, the benefits of skills-based volunteering and CSR activities on employee pride and satisfaction cannot be overstated.


Common Good HR Management Practices and Their Importance

Common good HR management is essential in contributing to the common good by creating sustainable practices, promoting fairness and equity and addressing global social issues.

Practical steps for HR leaders to implement these values in daily HR practices include focusing on initiatives and policies which drive and reinforce social sustainability.

Social sustainability recognises the importance of employee well-being and works to ensure a happy and healthy workforce who are content in their role and work-life balance. It also focuses on an ingrained culture of diversity and social responsibility, which is helped to be driven and maintained by programs including mentorship schemes, providing training for interview panels on unconscious bias, remote or flexible working policies, buddy systems for women in the workplace, and more.

Integrating Social Sustainability in HR Practices

Overall, the strategic advantage of integrating social sustainability in HR practices and the positive ripple effects on society and business is overwhelmingly positive not just for attracting and retaining staff, but also positively impacts the wider community and indeed, at a global level.

Watch our webinar on integrating ESG into HR practices for better business and societal outcomes.

Preparing For New Reporting Requirements on Sustainability WebinarWatch Now

Championing Social Sustainability for Impactful ESG was last modified: April 22nd, 2024 by Beatriz Araujo

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Frequently Asked Questions about ESG

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and it helps investors, stakeholders, and analysts gauge a company’s sustainability and ethical impact.

ESG evaluates a company’s performance in three key areas:

Environmental: Assesses the company’s impact on the environment, including its carbon footprint, energy efficiency, waste management, and adherence to environmental regulations.

Social: Focuses on how the company manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and communities, covering issues such as labour practices, diversity, product safety, and community engagement.

Governance: Evaluates the quality of management and oversight structures, including board diversity, transparency, accountability, and adherence to ethical standards and legal requirements.

Getting your company on board with ESG involves several steps:

1. Educate stakeholders about ESG’s importance.

2. Assess current practices and set goals.

3. Engage internal stakeholders for support.

4. Integrate ESG into business processes.

5. Measure and report progress transparently.

6. Seek partnerships for expertise and collaboration.

7. Continuously improve ESG efforts.

Environmental, Social, and Governance factors are important for businesses because they contribute to risk management, enhance reputation and brand value, provide a competitive advantage, support long-term value creation, and ensure compliance with regulatory obligations. Integrating ESG considerations into business strategies is essential for sustainable growth and responsible corporate stewardship.