CMI (Ben Willis): British companies’ record on corporate social responsibility (CSR) is mixed at best. Some companies have CSR so deeply embedded in their institutional DNA that it has now become an intrinsic part of their identity and how they position themselves in their respective marketplaces.
For many others though, particularly those starting off down the CSR road, it can appear a bewildering prospect. The difference between green wash and a great idea can be marginal, but getting it wrong can lead to perceptions of tokenism and a consequential loss of faith among staff and, even more crucially, customers.
Professional Manager tapped Business in the Community (BITC), a non-profit organisation that promotes responsible business practices, for some pointers on how to navigate the CSR labyrinth. Charlotte West, one of its corporate advisers, gives her top tips on taking the first steps towards more ethical business practices.
When starting out, West said undertaking some kind of audit or “gap analysis” is an essential first step in establishing initial guiding principles. BITC offers such a process in the form of its Responsible Business Check Up questionnaire, but West said companies can do this for themselves equally well.
The aim is to define how a business operates in four key areas – the environment, community, workplace and marketplace.
“These four quadrants are really helpful starting points for you to think about what impact you have on your people,” West said, “through how you employ them, how you pay them and how you treat them, down to the environment. Are you belching out fumes, or are you perhaps more of an office- based company that’s just about recycling its paper?”
Such an audit will ultimately identify areas where potential risks may lurk for a company.
“It helps you map them out so you can understand what things you should actually be focusing on,” said West. “Is this important? Is this really a deal-breaker for us? Are we going to lose millions if we don’t do this?”
CHECK YOUR NUMBERS
Another useful exercise is to benchmark against what similar organisations are doing. West acknowledges that benchmarking for a company that has so far put no CSR strategy in place could be a discouraging exercise, but for those looking to improve on their CSR track record it is also invaluable.
“A bit of a reality check is so helpful,” she said. “Not to be disparaging, but if you think you’re awesome at paying above-average wages or having good supplier relations, and it turns out that’s actually a bit of a weak spot for you, then it draws attention to the stuff you ought to be working on.
“Equally, it highlights where you’re really good, in which case you can brag about it to your potential future talent or customers in a way that’s informed, rather than just a hunch.”
TAKE IT TO THE TOP
Once the building blocks of a corporate responsibility programme have been established, a key step to helping it take root is getting buy-in at all levels of the business. West said this can make the difference between a CSR policy that flourishes and one that withers on the vine.
“Every part of the business, from marketing to HR to commercial and the chief executive’s office, needs to understand what it actually means for their area of the business in a day-to-day way, rather than it being seen as just something the CR manager does in the corner on a Friday afternoon,” she said. “And that’s key, because the minute this feels like an add-on or a nice-to- have you’ve failed, really. The minute you can make it feel like a smarter way of doing your day-to-day responsibilities, that really helps.”
Leadership can make a real difference to this part of the process, West said. She advises trying to get one or more senior members of a business, such as the chief executive or board members interested in the CSR cause. “Nothing beats having the chief executive standing up and talking about it to get people on board,” she said.
Equally, West said employees should be given the chance to suggest ideas, though she cautions that this should not take the form of a free-for-all.
“If you give people the opportunity to be open, whether it’s through having ambassador networks or open days in the office where people can come to talk and give ideas on where improvements can be made, then people feel like they own it and can make it,” she said.
RECOGNISE THE DANGERS
While CSR is a broadly positive activity, it can present some pitfalls, particularly to companies starting out. West cautions organisations in this position not to attempt too much too early on.
“Go with the flow and with what seems to be resonating internally,” she said. “You don’t want to be completely swayed by what’s on trend, because you ultimately want to focus on what’s relevant for your business.”
Ultimately, this will help the development of a CSR strategy that is meaningful and doesn’t become tarred with the brush of the biggest danger in CSR – that of tokenism.
“CSR needs to go beyond having a list of values on the wall,” West concluded. “That would be one of the pitfalls you see – where companies have meant well and they’ve launched the big new CR strategy but it hasn’t really filtered down into core decisions and actions. So don’t try and bite off too much and say you’re going to change the world at first.
“It’s best to start slowly.”