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Corporate Social Responsibility as an Expression of Purpose and Values

What does it mean for organizations to practice corporate social responsibility (CSR)? It seems there’s no time like the present to depose companies for their shady business practices. Too often, either a whistleblower or disenfranchised worker is revealing how their employer is mistreating their workforce, taking advantage of consumers, or simply failing to work towards anything other than dominating their respective industry. However, many businesses operate with two objectives that don’t have to be mutually exclusive: profits and purpose.

Along with other organizational initiatives, CSR promises what an organization will do. An organization that promotes a CSR initiative is making an implicit promise not just to shareholders and customers, but also to employees. Organizations must keep this fact in mind when developing these initiatives. CSR and engagement are linked, and organizational promises matter to employees and influence their attitudes.

CSR describes a company’s voluntary/discretionary relationships with its societal and community stakeholders. The goal of CSR is to achieve a balance in the triple bottom line: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial.

corporate social responsibility triple bottom line

CSR tries to identify the important stakeholders in each of these three areas and ensure that organizations are addressing each with the correct level of care. The majority of organizations claim to have a purpose beyond stated financial goals (i.e., profits), often reflected in a mission statement. Mission statements represent espoused values that the organization wishes to follow, but what is conceptually ideal isn’t always immediately attainable. The disparity between a company’s aspirational operations and its actual daily practices is seen through the exhibition of enacted values, those values that an organization truly puts into action. The more an organization demonstrates its espoused values, the greater the likelihood their personnel will be engaged. While consumers may only hear of espoused values, employees are keenly aware of enacted values. As insiders, they’re privy to what really happens within their organizations. Many organizations have statements around corporate social responsibility, and while customers may not know if the organizations live up to their CSR promises, employees do.

CSR and Engagement

In an article on Medium, Jason Myers discussed the importance of the purpose-driven organization. Myers highlighted the importance of purpose in engaging the workforce and of authenticity. His assertion concerning authenticity especially applies to CSR initiatives. Recent research by Gao, Zhang and Huo (2017) similarly emphasizes authenticity in the implementation of organizational initiatives. Their publication in the Journal of Business and Psychology provides some interesting insights by exploring the link between CSR initiatives and employee engagement through the lens of collective self-esteem. In other words, CSR is a sign of an enacted value, which affects collective self-esteem and, in turn, employee engagement. True CSR initiatives can positively impact employee motivation, especially those invested in working in an organization perceived as a benevolent force in the world.

Often, stakeholders in organizations view CSR initiatives as merely fluff, or marketing ploys that don’t require real action. While CSR may seem like a façade to some, employees may view CSR initiatives as overt promises made by the organizations and a rallying cry to make a real difference. These promises may be a source of pride for employees and failing to live up to these promises can cost employers engagement.
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How to Maximize CSR Efforts

For organizations, it is imperative to review promises (i.e., CSR and other related initiatives) and to use employee engagement surveys or other measurement tools to identify how those promises are viewed. If employees lack trust, they won’t stay engaged in their work, and the consequences will have an impact on the bottom line. CSR can provide employees with a greater sense of organizational self-esteem and collective pride. Employees want to feel proud of their employers, and demonstrating CSR is a great way to do so.

In addition, it is important to communicate CSR successes to employees and to the public at large. While most organizations have corporate social media accounts, rarely do they go beyond promoting new product releases and sales. Social media offers an excellent platform to inform customers and employees of CSR initiatives, providing a new way to maximize their impact.

The company Henry Schein offers a noteworthy example to follow. Living by the motto of “Doing well by doing good,” the organization’s success has been highlighted in a case study from Harvard Business Review. Henry Schein communicates their CSR initiatives consistently on social media. For employees, seeing those lived values enacted by their organization creates a deep sense of collective self-esteem around their employment.

Cabot Creamery Cooperative has found that sustainability initiatives based around CSR have helped the organization root out wasteful practices. In a piece at the Harvard Business Review the Cabot team describe how their CSR initiatives have helped them to achieve a “competitive advantage”. Their efforts have resulted in cost savings and stronger engagement with ‘conscious customers’. Their efforts have also engaged their employees. By living their values, Cabot has shown its employees what the company truly cares about. This purpose drives their employees and their profits.

Here are a few tips to help assess CSR success and employee engagement and to maximize the results of such efforts:

  • Measure engagement. To start, how do you define engagement within your organization? Do you see it as motivation, effort, or the general attitude about the workplace? After defining engagement, identify tools to assess engagement as it applies to your organization.
  • Know your values. Employee engagement and corporate culture provide important keys to understanding the values of your organization. Consistent measurement of these factors will reveal whether your organization truly enacts—or merely espouses—CSR values.
  • Evaluate delivery of promises. Using the triple bottom line (social, environmental, financial), review your organization’s achievements in corporate social responsibility. How does your organization treat its employees, customers, stakeholders and the world? Is your organization a good actor or a bad one? In short, are you living up to your promises?
  • Identify awareness of CSR initiatives. How well do you communicate CSR initiatives to employees? If employees are unaware of CSR initiatives, then your organization is not maximizing their benefit. Partner with your communications department to develop a great strategy.
  • Review the larger brand message. While organizations are concerned about consumer perceptions of their products or services, they should also recognize the importance of branding their organization as an employer of choice. CSR initiatives can play an important role in shaping the larger brand picture, which may not only retain, but also, lure talent.
  • Encourage employees as brand ambassadors. Using social media to highlight and communicate your CSR initiatives is another way to leverage engagement with your employees. Tagging the company in a social media post invites engagement and gives employees more control than mentioning an initiative in the company newsletter.
  • Align your CSR initiatives. Not every CSR initiative is appropriate for every organization. CSR initiatives should follow a similar pattern so that employees feel a deeper connection with the initiative itself. If employees cannot see the alignment between the CSR initiative and the organization’s business, the effect of the CSR initiative may be muted.

While profits are important, organizations can—and should—serve a greater purpose. A purpose-driven organization creates purpose-driven employees. Employees recognize when CSR initiatives are real and whether your organization is putting forth a good-faith effort to make the world a better place. It is in the organization’s best interest to communicate those ideas effectively. Build your employees’ collective self-esteem, and they will be more committed to, and engaged with, your organization every day.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Joseph Mazzola for his helpful feedback on this piece.

About Sy Islam

Dr. Sy Islam has more than 10 years of experience in corporate, academic, and applied settings, serving in management, consultant and research roles. He is an Assistant Professor of Industrial Organizational Psychology at Farmingdale State College, as well as a co-founder and Principal Consultant with Talent Metrics. Follow him on Twitter: @IOSyIslam and LinkedIn:

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