HR & Community Engagement: Building and Re-creating Local Relationships

Ron Jones

I have reflected on various events in communities across the UK, USA and Australia over recent months.

The specific circumstances of cause and effect in each situation will be the source of continued debate and enquiry by politicians, academics and community leaders for some time to come.

Some years ago, I lent help with school-to-work transition at a school community located in an area with the highest unemployment and suicide rates in the country. There were over 70 teachers at the school and only one lived within a 35 kilometer radius of the school. As a consequence, students felt that no-one in the community really cared about them or their future.

I suspect that much of the recent violence we have witnessed in our communities comes from a lack of disconnection at a very fundamental level: would you throw a rock through the window of a business that a friend or family member worked in?

My approach therefore is to try and look beyond the cause and begin a discussion around what might be some useful actions that could be a way of building a new level of community engagement.

HR practitioners in many enterprises have always sought to highlight the credentials of their firm in contributing to social and community benefit: now we have a strong argument for building on this approach and developing a cohesive community engagement strategy.

In part, this means knowing why we are part of a particular community: why is our retail outlet or production plant in that location. This requires our businesses and organizations to be able to justify their role and responsibilities within the very communities they help form by virtue of their very presence.

This then requires a commitment to, and investment in, building and re-creating local relationships.

Key components of this community engagement framework include:

  • Building opportunities for staff to engage directly with local groups such as schools, arts and sporting organizations for example through volunteer work, promoting their activities, offering sponsorships.
  • Providing speakers for local community groups on topics such as careers, leadership, the role of the organization, what value it provides to the local area, why it is located where it is, history and future plans, etc.
  • Allowing schools and other community based organizations to undertake work experience programs, doing site visits.
  • Offering scholarships for talented locals to support their future career and personal development goals.
  • Advertising job vacancies in the local community before going broader – establishing a local job-board with schools, educational institutions, and community groups in the area.
  • Involving local community organizations in the discussions about future opportunities.
  • Promoting/hosting local community events.
  • Providing mentors to build capability within the community.

Many of these activities are already undertaken by most businesses, to some degree. The focus now should be on using these as part of an overall and deliberate strategy designed to re-connect with local community goals and to be seen to be a part of the community rather than being seen as directly oppositional to it.

Building a strong sense of community within organizations will require HR to identify and promote some new values and competencies.

These will include:

  • Developing motivation and a genuine desire to engage with local community members.
  • Identifying a focus based on outcomes – what does the business want to achieve by developing a level of community engagement?
  • Relationship and trust building – how will the business seek to build accessibility, consistency and continuity of contact?
  • Inclusiveness – the value of recognising and supporting diversity and the competencies of broader participation and communication.
  • Providing leadership within the community – demonstrating support for community issues through an articulated statement of values.

HR can play a role in building these competencies within the business and actively seeking ways of using the community engagement framework as an active source of new talent.

The results may prove beneficial not only to the business, but also to the local community in which it operates.