If A Tree Is Planted In A Forest And No One Is There To See It, Is it Still Corporate Social Responsibility?
Corporate social responsibility has a lot of syllables and takes many forms. And there are varying degrees of intent and plausibility. Google for years was famous for its in-house slogan ‘Don’t be evil’. In a few syllables, they caught a vibe and encapsulated why they were doing what they were doing. Or why they thought they were doing it. Or why they hoped people would believe they were doing it.
They were disruptors trying to create something new and do better and bigger some things that already existed. Existing companies were bureaucratic dinosaurs hellbent on short-term thinking, driven by abstract financial targets at the expense of people and the planet. They did evil. Does that sound plausible, because I totally made that up? And that’s what Google was going at the time – making it up as they went along. Nah, it was true. The Google founders did have that catchphrase and they probably meant it. They don’t have it anymore but what they do have is some substantial military contracts and a lot of senior resignations instead. I bet they recycle though.
Recycling is a good thought exercise in the ‘perception versus reality’ of social responsibility, be it corporate or personal. Most of us are pretty cool and may even feel good about ourselves putting the right plastics in the right bins. But does that stuff actually get recycled? There’s news of China rejecting imported garbage and recyclables. This country certainly does not have the infrastructure to do much recycling economically. You don’t know.
You can book a flight and select an option for trees to be planted to offset the carbon your share of your flight’s fuel consumption creates. It adds to the cost of your flight though. The airline is being socially responsible offering it but how many passengers take it up and willingly pay extra for the promise of a conscience-salve they will never see? Is it just a PR exercise? Can we blame those corporates like airlines and data conglomerates on their behaviour when we have our ‘see no evil’ attitude to recycling? Do we, or they, really care about social responsibility, or do we care about being seen to be doing something that looks like social responsibility?
I met someone recently from a big company talking about trialling a 4-day work week. From what I was told, it seems genuinely motivated at the highest level and for altruistic and socially responsible reasons. They’re still conducting a phase to run the numbers and make sure it’s fiscally responsible too, which is obviously fair enough. It isn’t the leadership team’s money, it’s the owners’ money. A lot of businesses are like a lot of people, they’ll be honest and responsible if there’s something in it for them. In 2011, the US state of Utah ran a brief experiment with state employees and a four-day work week. They stopped doing it as the success criteria they set in advance related to energy and fuel savings, not employee wellbeing. And, those energy and fuel savings did not materialise. Arguments, however valid, about costs being passed to future generations is like pushing stuff uphill with a pointed stick on the Friday which is now supposed to be an extra day off.
Solar panels got adopted early by hippies but once they’re viable, scaleable and economic, everyone will be doing them. Social responsibility has a price and, as every economist will tell you, if you can stay awake long enough, price affects supply and demand. Tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over what corporates should do will get us about as far as we have gotten so far. And that is where we are.
We could observe that corporates aren’t sentient entities; they’re abstract concepts populated and controlled by people. People can be socially responsible, surely. Some can, sometimes but mostly history shows us it’s tipping points brought on by momentum that spur corporate leaders to stop being evil. Be it no longer offering free plastic bags at checkout, offering better than minimum wage, or stopping paid advertising with hate-spreading media outlets, well-meaning corporate leaders will move if pushed but they will check with the accounting department first.
If you want more corporate social responsibility, keep tweeting, organising marches, targeting the kids of the middle and so forth. They’ll swing a zeitgeist or two around the courts of public opinion. But, the handbrake needing release is how consumers decide to spend their money. Corporates are mostly competitive and if their primary competitive difference is what makes us little people vote with our wallets, then they’ll change.
Spend your money to control the profit makers. They’ve been spending theirs to control us for centuries.
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Here’s some fresh research on employee engagement numbers. It contradicts some other surveys and suggests a trend. Maybe that’s accurate. Maybe that’s not. Whether some average in a survey is bigger or smaller than some average in another survey should be of little interest to me or you. What should matter is how your engagement levels are trending at your workplace. Survey that or, better still, wander around and observe it and immerse yourself in it yourself. That’s quicker, cheaper, more accurate, more timely and more useful to you right now.
Having just lambasted survey results and generalities, there are some specifics that could be of applicable relevance to you. Here’s a quote, “The report also identified three main drivers of improved employee engagement – career opportunities, recognition of employees’ hard work and organisational reputation… This last factor was particularly valued by European employees, who were more concerned about their employer’s public reputation and values than personal recognition.”
I recently blogged about the extent to which corporate social responsibility could be a lever to attract and retain talent and to enhance employee engagement. In short, I thought it could if there was a direct, personal and emotional connection between the type of corporate social responsibility and the individual employees. Otherwise it could just be hype and spin – a superficial facade or off-target wasted effort.
So, if we accept this new research tagging employer reputation as being a genuine driver (or represser) of employee engagement, then that would seem to further suggest that corporate social responsibility might be a good thing, not just because it is inherently a good thing, but because it drives employee engagement. AND, as I am at pains to often stress, employee engagement is a good thing, not just because it is inherently a good thing, but because it drives improved revenue and profitability. And that’s a good thing even for bean counters* who might not personally care about employees or society.
This Forbes article contains some challenging results from surveys about what some employees would be willing to trade off in terms of pay in exchange for a workplace that was into social responsibility, positive environmental impact or similar values. I’m a little cynical but having made some similar trade-offs myself in recent years, I can believe it. I think my cynicism is around the fact that these employees must have some baseline of income they’d demand before they start getting all altruistic. Fair enough. The happiness research says that beyond a certain point, more money doesn’t make you sustainably happier. So maybe some of these warm, fuzzy organisational behaviours would?
When it comes to employees, ‘happy’ is not the same as ‘engaged.’ Happy is whatever you think it is for you. Engaged means you’re applying discretionary effort at work – i.e. doing stuff you don’t HAVE TO because you CHOOSE TO. That said, I’d like to be happy and I’d like employees to be happy. Of course, the big question is to what extent am I, or any employer, willing to pay for that happiness? My usual answer applies, “It depends.”
It would depend a whole lot less if there was a genuine willingness to make some trade-off. We’d all love to hug a tree but might be less inclined to live in one.
35% would take a 15% pay cut to work for a company “committed to corporate social responsibility” (whatever that means.) 45% would take a 15% pay cut to work for a company making a social or environmental impact. (I presume they mean a positive impact?) 58% would take a 15% pay cut to work for a company “with values like my own.”
Employee engagement and people’s natural internal motivation is driven by, amongst other things, a sense of purpose – contributing to something greater, something beyond self. I think that, for this influence to kick in, it would have to be a more specific personal connection than merely a general or vague corporate social responsibility. It would need to be precise and relevant to the individual. Taking a 15% pay cut to work for a company that might cure cancer sounds like a box you’d tick on a survey. But if you had cancer or loved someone who did, you wouldn’t have time to tick the box or take surveys because you’d be passionately engaged in working towards helping cure cancer. Nothing inspires a personal protest against motorways more than a letter revealing your house is in the way of a motorway development.
The sad thing, not so much about the article itself but how some employers may interpret it, is how some employers may choose to use the information from the survey. If the primary finding was that people will take a pay cut to do good deeds with us, you’d like to think that would encourage employers to do good deeds etc. The last recommendation of the article was to optimise social media to spread the word about the good deeds. This spin angle is what many businesses will pick up on. What will get generated may not be a better world but a noisier one. But I suppose the community-minded employee has to find out about potential employers somehow. I do worry that the truly socially responsible corporates will be drowned out by those with shiny facades and little true depth.
So, long-story-short-too-late, I agree that community contribution or social responsibility or whatever label you choose to use, could be a useful lever for enhancing employee engagement but it would have to be strongly personally relevant and emotionally connecting. But, even if it wasn’t, I’d prefer banks etc not to be parasitic blood-sucking leeches.