A Model for Implementing a Sustainability Strategy through HRM Practices

AuthorPaul F. Buller,Glenn M. McEvoy
Published date01 December 2016
Date01 December 2016
A Model for Implementing
a Sustainability Strategy
through HRM Practices
There is a rapidly growing interest in the topic of sustain-
ability as it relates to long-term business performance
that optimizes the “triple bottom line”: economic, environ-
mental, and social outcomes. This article articulates a
multilevel conceptual model for executing a business
strategy for sustainability primarily through the design
and implementation of human resource management
practices. The model builds on open systems theory, the
resource based view of the firm, and the concept of line of
sight to identify certain key organizational capabilities,
group competencies, and individual abilities and other
characteristics that combine to drive organizational per-
formance when pursuing a sustainability strategy. The
article concludes with a discussion of implications of the
model for theory, research, and practice.
Paul F. Buller is a Professor of Management at School of Business Administration, Gonzaga
University, Spokane, WA. E-mail:buller@jepson.gonzaga.edu. Glenn M. McEvoy is a Management
Professor at College of Business and Economics, Western Washington University, Bellingham,
WA. E-mail: Glenn.Mcevoy@wwu.edu.
C2016 W. Michael Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by
Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington
Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 121:4 465–495
Over the past two decades, there has been a proliferation of
academic and practitioner writing on the topic of business
sustainability, that is, business performance that opti-
mizes long-term economic, environmental, and social benefits. The
impetus for this increased attention on sustainability comes from a
variety of forces internal and external to the firm including declin-
ing natural resources and greater pollution of the environment,
population growth and income inequality, demands from consum-
ers, governments, and activist shareholders for greater transparen-
cy, and changing expectations from consumers, business leaders,
employees, and other stakeholders (Laszlo and Zhexembayeva
2011; Savitz and Weber 2013; Swallow 2009). Indeed, there is a
growing perception that businesses are a primary cause of many of
the economic, environmental, and social problems in our world
today, resulting in more regulation and mistrust of businesses and
a decline in their competitiveness (Porter and Kramer 2011). At the
same time, some authors have argued that companies that can
effectively execute a business strategy for sustainability may have
an enduring source of competitive advantage (Hart 2010; Laszlo
and Zhexembayeva 2011; Porter and Kramer 2011; Russo 2010).
Despite this growing body of literature regarding the need for
sustainable businesses, and the many prescriptions for how organ-
izations can become more sustainable, there is still much we do
not know, particularly regarding how best to implement a sustain-
ability strategy. While a variety of practical ideas have been pre-
sented, most of these prescriptions have been offered without a
clear underlying theoretical framework (Dubois and Dubois 2012;
Ehnert and Harry 2012; Jackson and Seo 2010). The purpose of
this article is to propose a conceptual model for effectively execut-
ing a business strategy for sustainability primarily through the
design and implementation of human resource management (HRM)
practices. We argue that successful implementation of a sustain-
ability strategy involves a highly complex and dynamic process of
creating and aligning organizational, group and individual level
activities through HRM practices. This multilevel “line of sight”
(LOS) framework aligns organizational capabilities and culture,
group competencies and norms, and individual ability, motivation
and opportunity with one another and with the sustainability

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