The Challenge of Making CSR Work Across Large Organisations

A breakdown of the role that corporate and social responsibility plays in public and employee perceptions of large corporations, and how it can be made to work without seeming disingenuous.

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Takashi Sato, managing director at Unipos, outlines the importance of CSR and why “just giving'” is no longer enough for large companies.

We live in a time when consumers increasingly vote with their wallets and judge companies on their approaches to their wider social and environmental responsibilities. As a result, many large businesses are responding with an increased focus on corporate and social responsibility (CSR), which often includes environmental programs, more ethical employment practices and various other philanthropic endeavours. In the light of recent anti-racism protests, CSR has become a greater priority than ever before.

Not only are these initiatives good for the external brand image, the thinking goes, they can also serve as a direct response to the problem of employee retention and low levels of engagement in the workplace. It is hoped that this will be achieved by convincing those employees that the company they work for is a force for good, and that their work is therefore meaningful and worthwhile.

Yet, while this approach often evolves organically in small and medium sized organisations, it can be difficult for large enterprises to do effectively. Because of the sheer logistics of making decisions in a big company, even the best of intentions and meaningful initiatives can easily be lost in translation.

It is certainly true that employees want their employers to behave more morally responsibly – especially in younger age groups. According to a recent Glassdoor survey, 75% of employees aged 18-34 expect their employer to take a stand on important issues affecting the country and their constitutional rights, including immigration, equal rights and climate change.

It is certainly true that employees want their employers to behave more morally responsibly – especially in younger age groups.

But, while CSR initiatives have become increasingly commonplace, especially among larger enterprises, there is evidence to suggest that these practices are sometimes poorly understood, or in some cases even known about, by the employees of those businesses.

The mistake many companies make is to misunderstand how engagement actually works in the first place. In order to engage their employees with such initiatives they must first involve them, and while this tends to happen naturally with a small number of employees, the challenge grows exponentially with the size of the business.

By communicating the details of these initiatives and what they actually mean in real terms to their workforce, and then giving employees a stake in how they are implemented, companies will begin a dialogue which will serve as the foundation to a more engaged workforce. A top-down CSR strategy that bypasses the thoughts and opinions of the employees will inevitably have a limited effect on boosting retention and engagement among those same employees.

An example of a large corporate that has put this into practice is the leading global media investment agency Group M, which uses Unipos as an employee engagement tool, feeding it into their CSR approach. During COVID-19, when people are not meeting face-to-face, Group M has found the tool useful in providing constructive feedback and recognition and building a positive atmosphere despite the circumstances. It was also able to support those in need by allowing employees the choice to donate proceeds from their shared points to a local NGO that has been active in providing food and other supplies to low-income families during the crisis.

As a result of this and other supporting initiatives, its employee Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measure of how likely staff members are to recommend a company as a place to work, has improved significantly.

Other large businesses leading the way in CSR initiatives, according to a recent ranking by the Reputation Institute, include IT giants Microsoft and Intel, luxury brands such as Rolex and Ferrari and entertainment leaders such as the Walt Disney Company and Netflix. All these companies will have very different approaches to their culture and employee engagement, but certain common practices are likely to lie at the heart of their collective success.

In practice, a successful enterprise-level CSR strategy will almost certainly mean involving all departments of the business. Having a person or team in charge of CSR initiatives is fine, but it will have little impact if they’re acting in a silo. By feeding in details of those initiatives to marketing, internal communications, HR teams and those responsible for managing staff across the organisation, it will be far more likely that the approach becomes embedded in the DNA of the business, feeling authentic, rather than like a ‘bolt-on’.

There is plenty of evidence that employees respond badly to companies trying to present a false veneer of virtue or ‘greenwashing’ – CSR that is more focused on appearances than true commitment to a cause. CSR pursued for the wrong reasons or in a half-hearted fashion risks appearing inauthentic in the eyes of their employees, which in turn is very likely to affect those employees’ view of the organisation as a whole.

However, if handled well it can be a powerful motivator within organisations, driving purpose among teams and making them feel involved in the direction of the business as a whole. Authenticity and employee engagement at all levels are the key to doing this well.

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