Sustainable travel – scope for structuring by the HR department


Now more than ever, the issue of sustainable travel can impact a company's image. In order to make good use of this within a company, it is essential for the company to distance itself from a status-oriented way of thinking. In order to reduce emissions, companies should reconsider every business trip, but this process must not disregard legal, particularly labour law, requirements.

Current work commutes are not sustainable

When it comes to sustainable travel, it is not only business trips that are relevant. The daily commute to work also has a significant impact. According to a study by the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (Bundesinstitut für Bau-, Stadt- und Raumforschung), almost 60% of employees subject to social insurance contributions did not work at home in 2020.

Company cars make up a significant share of German traffic. Every year, over 60% of new cars are registered to a commercial owner.

More sustainable alternatives are necessary, which the HR department of every company must carefully consider.

Sustainable structure of the commute

HR can actively help employees make their own commute more sustainable, thus making a significant contribution to the environment. In doing so, employers must distance themselves from status symbols such as the company car and offer new alternatives.

There are numerous options. One is job tickets, which are already offered in many companies. In addition, company e-bikes or train tickets are alternatives that can support and motivate employees to exercise sustainable behaviour. For employees who only need a company car for a few days a year, access to a public car-sharing provider can also help. These are all ways in which a company can contribute to a "green" commute.

Restrictions under labour law

Human resources management can only make offers to employees. The journey from home to work does not constitute working time within the meaning of the German Working Hours Act (ArbZG). Organising the commute is therefore a private matter for an employee. In this respect, the employer cannot demand the use of a "green" alternative using the right to issue directives under section 106 German Trade, Commerce and Industry Regulation Act (GewO).

Instead of relying on labour law options, corporate culture should be addressed. If the culture of professional sustainability is actively practised in a company, employees should not feel that their employer is unduly restricting them. The changeover would instead be seen as a necessary measure for the greater good.

Existing company car regulations

Changing policies on mobility within a company, however, cannot happen overnight. Existing company car regulations in particular are an obstacle to sustainable development.

An employee's entitlement to a company car must be considered if this has been specified in the contract with the employer. In this situation, the company car cannot then be simply exchanged for a company bicycle. This is particularly important since a company car, which can also be used for private purposes, is treated as a component of income. If an employee returns a company car, this would be an impermissible, unilateral reduction in salary.

Here it is necessary to apply tact and offer sustainable alternatives on a voluntary basis. For example, employees can also be offered bonuses. In future contracts, company car regulations can then be dispensed with.

Principle of equal treatment as a hurdle

The principle of equal treatment can also be a hurdle for abolishing company-car schemes. If such arrangements already exist, new workers could also insist on a transfer agreement.

The general principle of equal treatment under labour law originates from case law and has become established as customary law. Regarding content, the principle of equal treatment prohibits the breaking of general or group-related regulations that place individual employees or groups of employees at a disadvantage.

A violation of this principle is assumed if unequal treatment is given in a comparable situation. An example of this is when two employees perform a similar job and one is provided with a company car, but the other "only" a bicycle. Such unequal treatment could only be justified by an objective reason. It is questionable whether sustainability goals can be stated as an objective reason. However, if the employer and the employee voluntarily rule out the granting of a company car by means of a case-by-case regulation (e.g. by means of a clause in the employment contract) and agree on alternatives, this cannot be considered unequal treatment.

Here, too, it is up to HR to find employees who identify with sustainability goals.

Business trips as another aspect in need of reform

Business trips are also a relevant aspect when considering sustainable mobility within HR departments.

According to the German Business Travel Association, 195 million business trips have been made in Germany. However, sustainability is often not taken into account. Short-haul flights in particular are a cheaper alternative to German rail, but they have a considerable impact on the environment. The German federal government is a pioneer in this area. Currently, employees of the German federal government can use railways even if this means higher costs.

This is also in the interest of business travellers. Each company should create the necessary guidelines for this. If the travel policy is to book the cheapest travel option, low-cost airlines will continue to be used.

Scope for HR to organise more sustainable business trips

In order to make business trips more sustainable, the first question that should be asked is whether it is necessary to travel. The pandemic has shown that many meetings can also be held digitally. In addition, most companies now have the necessary technical equipment at their disposal.

However, not every customer contact can be carried out digitally. For these cases, it is advisable to specify in the guidelines that if business trips are unavoidable, they should be as sustainable as possible. There are a number of ways to reduce emissions, such as the use of rail at least domestically and to ban short-haul flights. But sustainability can also be considered in hotels. It is advisable to use local companies. If long distance travel is required, it should be included in the policy that direct flights are preferred. Attention should also be paid to the possibility of meeting several partners in succession on a trip. However, this is only effective if compliance with the policy is verified.

Bonus programmes could be an alternative. These could reward employees who voluntarily choose a sustainable, but perhaps not a comfortable, business trip.

No co-determination rights for the works council

If the travel and expenses policy is to be adapted, the works council generally has no co-determination rights here. Such guidelines do not concern remuneration or work and performance behaviour within the meaning of section 87 (1) nos. 1, 10 German Works Constitution Act (BetrVG), but rather the reimbursement of expenses and the fulfilment of the duty to work.

For management and HR management, this means first and foremost that changes regarding business trips can be implemented without works council negotiations.

Great potential for employee recruitment and retention

In the context of mobility within companies, there is great potential to implement sustainable goals, especially regarding business travel. When it comes to the journey to work, on the other hand, HR has only limited legal options. The focus here must be on communicating and establishing sustainability goals and encouraging employees to identify with them. This also seems to be particularly important for employee satisfaction since current research reveals that more and more employees support these reforms. In short, the time is ripe to move away from short-haul flights and company cars and prioritise sustainable alternatives.

For more information on creating policies within your German company that encourage sustainability for business travel and commuting, contact your CMS client partner or local CMS experts: