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The need for a sustainable Human Resource Management philosophy

Date Released: Mon, 14 May 2012 10:51 +0200

By Professor Noel Pearse, Associate Professor at Rhodes Business School.


Subsequently, the King Reports on Corporate Governance, as well as the recently promulgated Companies Act, have assumed this role, compelling all businesses operating in the country to consider their broader responsibilities to society and the environment and to exercise stewardship on behalf of future generations.

If this was possible before, it can no longer be argued that a business only exists for the sake of maximising profits for its shareholders.  Rather it is accountable and responsive to a wider set of stakeholders who represent a diverse and often competing set of expectations.

In parallel to this changing role of business in society, has been the evolution of the Human Resource Management (HRM) function of the business.

From roots in a largely personnel administrative role, the Sullivan Code saw the Human Resource function becoming the custodian of corporate social responsibility programmes.  These stood largely apart from the core activity of the business, albeit targeting and benefiting communities that served as a source of labour or were part of the customer base.

Subsequently, with the era of democracy and South Africa’s integration into the global economy, the HRM function was called upon to engage more fully in the core business and activities of the company.  The effective management of the human resource was emphasised in an endeavour to develop and utilise people as the core competence of the business.

The strategic partner and change agent role of human resource management came to the fore as HRM moved to closer to the strategic core of the business.

In a post-economic crisis era, several pressures are currently bearing down on businesses internationally from a range of stakeholders and social movements such as “Occupy Wall Street”.

Key concerns include, responsible and ethical business practices, the impact of business on climate change, environmental regulations and responsibilities, green jobs, social justice, the contribution of business to the millennial development goals, and intellectual property and privacy rights.

Nationally, debates about economic transformation and ownership, economic development paths, the promotion of decent jobs, and the ticking time bomb of youth unemployment take centre stage.

These changes in the business landscape are already impacting upon the HRM function, particularly in the area of policy formulation, the development of processes, and setting up appropriate administrative systems. This is evident in the labour relations realm in ensuring fair labour practices, as well as in the promoting, monitoring and reporting on employment equity and diversity. HRM is also involved in administration related to BBBEE requirements and Charters.

Yet more is required, and greater demands will be placed on HRM in the future to be more provocative and to not only contribute to the organisation but to add value to society at large.

This can firstly be done by facilitating the re-orientation of companies to their broader responsibilities towards a wider range of stakeholders, thereby placing sustainability (economic, social and environmental) at the centre of the business agenda. HRM practitioners have an opportunity to take the lead in this area.

But this will require an overhaul of the philosophy of Human Resource function.  Unless HRM practitioners rethink their role, they cannot exercise leadership, and as has been the case for so much of its history, will remain followers of business trends and requirements, rather than becoming leaders of sustainability.


Amos, T. L., Ristow, A., Ristow, L. & Pearse, N. J. (2008). Human Resource Management (3rd Ed.), Cape Town: Juta and Company Ltd.

Colbert, B. A. & Kurucz, E. C. (2007). Three Conceptions of Triple Bottom Line Business Sustainability and the Role for HRM. Human Resource Planning, 30(1), 21-29.

Taylor, S. & Pearse, N. J. (2009). Creating Sustainable Organizations Through Servant Leadership. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 4 (4), 223-234.