In 2015, the Harvard Business Review published a forward-thinking article about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that discussed some principles that hold relevance today. CSR activities should align a company’s social and environmental goals with the business purpose and values. Corporate social responsibility should be a well-thought-out effort that supports the employer’s brand values and reflects a disciplined, coherent, and coordinated effort. It’s an effort that should embrace employees as stakeholders. When developed and implemented with these principles in mind, CSR becomes an important union preventive strategy and a positive brand reputation builder because organizational values are reinforced, and employees are included in the decision-making process.
All in a Name
Corporate Social Responsibility encompasses a variety of activities. It may be:
- Philanthropy in which the company donates money to one or more nonprofits or community events
- Social welfare in which the company offers employees and their family’s critical benefits
- Employee volunteerism in communities doing things like local environmental clean-up
- International training and employment programs that aid people living in poverty
- Advertising campaigns addressing a social issue like child hunger, poverty
- Contributions to disaster relief needed due to extreme weather events
- Supporting of diverse businesses by providing the necessary training and support to grow their businesses and improve their ability to join the supply chain
- Hiring diverse employees and giving them equal career opportunities
- Supporting environmental sustainability initiatives that lead to reduced operational costs or contribute to the sustained flow of resources needed
Aligning corporate social responsibility with the business mission and goals ensures the programs, initiatives, and invested resources contribute to developing the right brand reputation. There are plenty of stories of social responsibility initiatives going wrong, even when the intentions were good. For example, some corporate advertisements seemed to perpetuate gender stereotypes and international programs that failed due to a lack of understanding of the local culture and norms.
When CSR Backfires
There are also corporate efforts that backfired when the intent was to be good corporate citizens and take care of employees. For example, tech companies implemented pandemic policies that gave parents additional paid time off. The backlash that came from employees without children took management by surprise.
The childless employees felt under-appreciated and overworked as they tried to assume some of the duties of the non-parent employees on paid leave. They also were coping with the pandemic. A rift between the two groups of employees developed at companies like Facebook, which had treated parents generously, with non-parents asking why they were not allowed paid leave as they dealt with the impacts of the pandemic and shifting workloads.
One aspect of all this is that younger childless employees working for tech companies tend to see generous benefits as payment for extended workdays. Now they were balancing multiple jobs like parents were balancing full-time parenting.
Good Intentions are Not Enough
When issues like benefits and brand reputation come into play, it’s clear that being socially and environmentally accountable requires more than just spending money or implementing new benefits. Good intentions are not enough, and that has implications for staying union-free. Companies are held responsible for the corporate social responsibility impacts, whether the impacts involve inequality or climate change, or employee engagement. The challenge is developing a CSR focus aligned with corporate business goals while also ensuring the effects on employees are reasonable and fair.
Employees are demanding more today. They want to work for companies that embrace CSR, but they are not tolerant of any perceived inequities your company may unintentionally support. You need policies and procedures in place that integrate environmental, social, human rights, ethical, and customer concerns into your core strategy. It’s a tall order, and as Facebook’s experience demonstrated, it’s challenging to make everyone happy. Some of the pitfalls that companies experience that lead to unionization include:
- Making a cursory effort to be socially responsible
- Using corporate social responsibility more for marketing purposes than for having a positive impact on stakeholders
- Not sincerely engaging employees in CSR program development, implementation and operation
- Making decisions that impact employee lives without their input
Recognize Employees as Stakeholders
The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) published Corporate Social Responsibility: An Implementation Guide for Business in 2007. It is still an essential and relevant guide that presents six critical components for implementing an effective corporate social responsibility plan.
- Conduct a CSR assessment
- Develop a CSR strategy
- Develop CSR commitments
- Implement CSR commitments
- Report and verify progress
- Evaluate and improve
One of the most important steps is identifying all stakeholders, and your employees are stakeholders. Perhaps if the tech companies had communicated with employees first, they could have avoided creating the disruptive resentment between parent and non-parent employees. The IISD gives important consideration to employees, pointing out that stakeholders will expect to be recognized when the company has a direct or immediate and good or bad impact on them.
The CSR decisions should determine who will participate based on some criteria:
- Significance of the CSR effect in the view of the employees on employees, families, and other community members
- Importance of the stakeholders to operations
- Risk of gathering incomplete information by excluding a group (i.e., Facebook excluded non-parents when developing pandemic policies)
- Opportunity to access new ideas, i.e., employees may challenge current practices and provide new insights into problem-solving
Engaging Employees in Corporate Social Responsibility
Developing positive employee relations is a crucial union preventive strategy. CSR decisions should not be made in a vacuum because they impact employees in significant ways. The employee engagement process needs careful attention to ensure your organization’s intentions are communicated correctly. Employee communication rules, the implication being your leaders understand the importance of being great communicators who can share a vision!
- Include representatives from all employee groups in the discussion
- Communicate the current and proposed CSR policies to employees
- Ask for employee feedback which gives employees a voice in decision-making
- Use the appropriate language to communicate with non-English speaking employees
- Make sure employees can express opinions without fear of retaliation for agreeing or disagreeing
- Be sensitive to varied employee needs
- Utilize a variety of employee engagement tools and approaches, i.e., in-person meetings, company Employee Resource Groups, pulse surveys, videos, podcasts, social media, etc.
All of these considerations are geared towards employee engagement which also equates to value creation for your company.
Honesty and Transparency
Honesty is vital to building employee trust. Not asking for feedback implies final decisions have been made about corporate social responsibility. People don’t want to be patronized, and they have instant access to local and global information. They will know what your company is doing in the community, in the country, and internationally. Accountability is also a critical CSR element. Whatever is implemented needs to be measured and reported, increasing transparency.
Corporate social responsibility should be an honest reflection of corporate purpose and decision-making. Otherwise, it becomes an Achilles heel or something unhappy employees or unions can latch onto. “See how hypocritical this company is? They work their employees to the bone and refuse to give them more money but claim they support social equity.”
The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) discussed that the Business Roundtable, a consortium of 180 U.S. CEOs, developed a new vision statement and put corporate responsibility at the forefront. Priorities include investing in employees and supporting local communities. New principles reflected the business leaders’ commitment to promote an economy that consists of a broader constituency of employees, local communities, local governments, partners, suppliers, credits, and union members. The vision statement lays out a commitment to employees that includes compensating employees fairly, providing critical employee benefits, providing training and education to employees to develop new skills, and fostering diversity and inclusion along with dignity and respect.
Corporate social responsibility is clearly about how well companies treat their workers. To meet the Business Roundtable’s definition of corporate responsibility will require business leaders to promote employee-driven cultures. Employees must participate in CSR, which in turn promotes a positive brand reputation. Staying union-free becomes much easier when CSR becomes a preventive strategy.
If CSR plans reflect a change, success depends on a positive corporate culture that embraces employee input and perspectives on how your company can improve social, economic, and/or environmental conditions. It may be strengthening family benefits is the best plan, or it may not be. It may be working within the community to improve economic status or funding a community training program, or investing in nonprofits pursuing social justice. Whatever is decided should reflect an employee-management collaboration.
Collaborating to Stay Union-Free
How your company handles corporate social responsibility has a significant impact on brand reputation and the ability to stay union-free. After determining the best corporate social responsibility approach, be sure to communicate the strategy to employees and the public. Projections, Inc. can help you develop the right communication solutions. It is an excellent opportunity to show appreciation for employee input and demonstrate to the public that employees and management collaborate. Engaged employees who are collaborating with management are not going to turn to unions.