Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR in popular lexicon, is trending these days propelled by public activism and government regulations. In India, for example, companies with a certain turnover threshold will now have to compulsorily spend 2% of their average net profits of the last 3 years on CSR initiatives.

While this is a welcome trend, I wonder if the scope of CSR needs to be expanded to lend real meaning to the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility!

For a long time, the purpose of business was seen as generating profit, which, in turn, was to be reinvested to expand and grow. It can be argued that even then, the ultimate purpose of business was for the social good since investments by business houses fuel economic growth. The problem was that the corporate world refused to take responsibility for the external environment in which it operated, leading to oil spills, pollution etc. It was this disconnect that gave rise to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility and the mantra that businesses must give back to the community. CSR, thus, came to be defined as companies giving back to the external social environment in which they operated.

Tom Raftery (Flickr)
Tom Raftery (Flickr)

The question that often crosses my mind is how socially productive are CSR initiatives really, even within the existing definition? I have no doubt that some good is being done but I wonder if governments and social communities are missing a trick here? Wouldn’t the collective efforts of business houses be a lot more productive towards achieving social good if a list of activities were defined for companies to choose from? In India, for example, the list could be aligned with the government’s agenda of cleaning India’s rivers or India’s cities for that matter.

But I am digressing from the main purpose of this blog. Which is to ask if Corporate Social Responsibility needs to be redefined to include a company’s internal environment as well.  For, aren’t employees citizens of the larger society and, therefore, shouldn’t social responsibility come into play here as well?

The Social Cost of Corporate Culture 

This world of ours runs on money. No job; no money. No money – no healthy and comfortable life; no progress for the family, self and society! If this basic tenet is irrefutable, corporate social responsibility must begin at home and companies must also be measured by how good an employer they are.

Wait a minute! Isn’t that a Human Resources responsibility?  Of course it is, but corporate culture is driven by top management and not just the Human Resource function. That being the case, corporate culture must surely be examined to assess if corporate social responsibility towards a company’s own employees is being fulfilled.

This thought process was actually triggered by a blog I came across sometime ago on LinkedIn titled “4 Ways to Avoid the Axe.” Essentially the author, Dr. Duff Watkins*, was advocating the need for becoming skilled in the art of self-advocacy because often it is the person who is unknown to the management (the introvert, the demure and people who rely on their work to speak for itself) who gets axed when an organisation decides to cut back on staff. Dr. Watkins didn’t mention this but such personalities also suffer at the time of handing out increments and bonuses. Unless they are reporting into a boss who presents their case successfully.

Dr. Watkins, no doubt, was calling a spade a spade and bringing people’s attention to the harsh reality of corporate life. You have to look out for yourself and navigate your way through the corridors of ambition and office politics. Adapt or perish!

I can understand ‘perform or perish,’ but ‘adapt or perish’?

My question is, has the culture of self-sufficiency been taken too far in encouraging individuals to first pay to acquire skills that are in demand (post graduation degrees) and then learn to market those skills and oneself (corporate grooming)? And, is such a culture socially desirable?

The world we live in is interesting precisely because it is populated with diverse personalities. Tall ones, short ones, the comedians, the intense, the talkers, the listeners, the amiable, the dominating, the thinkers and the doers. Together, they create a beautiful and colourful tapestry. Together, they inspire one another to innovate, create and progress. My point is, each personality type has a role to play and it truly does take all sorts to keep the engine of businesses and the world going.

But today, with the commercialization of education, corporate stereotypes rule (with the exception of a few fields where individual liberties are granted to talented people in exchange for product ideas that can be patented and marketed). What then happens to ordinary folks who are also performing tasks of value because those are the tasks that keep the cogs of an organization’s business wheel turning?  What happens to talented folks who are actually the brain behind work that is marketed to the management by a fast moving, fast talking colleague?

According to Dr. Watkins (and sadly, I must say he is right), they get the axe when organizations find it necessary to let people go. Or, to my mind, chances are they suffer from depression caused by the lack of appreciation, recognition and reward for their accomplishments.

What, I wonder, is the social cost of the damage done on the individual psyche by corporate culture, which encourages by error of omission, if not commission, such extremely competitive, even unethical behaviour?

Of course, there is another social cost to such behaviour, namely, the fact that it is precisely because an organisation failed to distinguish between true performers and skilled practitioners of self-advocacy (who may, just may, be marketing the work of people who are too busy working or too shy to market themselves), which led to a situation where, as Dr. Watkins puts it, the organization had to look to its own survival by axeing staff. In other words, the cost to society is loss of jobs!

 

Corporate Moral Responsibility = Corporate Social Responsibility 

In my view, an alternate corporate culture is called for. One where management of companies serve as a parent or guru to employees. And like parents do with their children , nurture employees to progress and grow. Which means, employers need to take an interest in employees as people; individuals in their own right and not just paid labour.  If that happens, perhaps there would perhaps be no need for advisory blogs on how to avoid the axe.

Another crucial area of Corporate Social Responsibility must encompass the active encouragement of good personal ethics, which will automatically lead to a better society.

John Dewey**, one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, believed that human behaviour is the outcome of an interaction between human traits and the natural and social environment. Based on this premise, Dewey advocated that ethical behaviour should be habitually encouraged by intelligently re-engineering the environment.

I am wondering if there is any better way to do so than redefine Corporate Social Responsibility to encompass the encouragement and promotion of good ethical behaviour by employers? After all, we spend our maximum waking hours in the office space. More important, we depend on the place of employment for our livelihood and very survival. Ergo, the corporate organization is in the best position to encourage and promote social and personal value systems that will benefit both the organization and society as a whole. To achieve this, performance rewards have to look beyond financial indicators to measures of behaviour. I don’t have an answer to the specifics of how. But I am hoping that someone who reads this blog will get inspired enough to come up with a model.

As Dewey pointed out,  society has historically tried to refine human nature by holding out a promise that ethical behaviour will be rewarded. But, if time and again, people only experience a world where  “a Socrates is seen to drink the hemlock of the criminal, and where the vicious are seen to occupy the seats of the mighty”**,  society will continue to struggle with questions of graft, ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility.

 

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#careerplanning #CSR #humanresources #careeradvice


Featured Image Credit: The Causes of The Great Depression/FDR Memorial Site – Tony Fischer (Flickr.com CC BY 2.0)

Related Links:

*Dr. Duff Watkins – 4 Ways to Avoid the Axe – https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140605103849-3018149-4-ways-to-avoid-the-axe

**Dewey, J.  “Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology.” New York: The Modern Library, 1930.

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