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Employees Want to Believe CSR is About “Doing the Right Thing”

Employees get the warm fuzzies when they think their companies use CSR altruistically, but for managers, it’s really about the numbers.

Employees assume their company’s environmental actions are motivated by a corporate desire to “do good.” However, research shows most environmental activities are actually motivated by cost, regulation, and risk management – in that order.

Researcher Gregory Berry of Central Connecticut State University interviewed 19 executives and 11 stakeholders (including employees) at 11 companies in the chemical industry. He investigated the difference between employees’ assumptions about corporate environmental action and executives’ actual motivators.

CSR is Largely Numbers-Driven

The executives Berry interviewed admitted the majority of their environmental actions – CSR activities such as reducing pollution emissions – were motivated by three things:

  1. Opportunities for cost-savings

  2. External regulations being imposed on their firm or industry; and

  3. The desire to mitigate risk.

Employees instead wanted to believe that their company was reducing emissions because it was morally right.

“There is the inherent knowledge that [being environmentally responsible] is ‘the right thing to do’ “, said one employee respondent. “I just don’t think it is totally economic…” said another. “I think it is as much about the culture, the vision, the pride…”

These findings illustrate the importance of framing your CSR activities as altruistically as possible – even when they’re not. Employees who believe their company’s values align with their own are more committed and dedicated to their employer. And, whether you like it or not, your employees are de facto ambassadors for your organization.

Employees Want Shared Values

One executive gave the example of a company that opened a new chemical plant and experienced a big flare:

“[A] couple of neighbours started giving this… guy a real tough time about [the flare]. He’s just an instrument mechanic, a maintenance person really. What I found fascinating was that he was informed enough about the issue that he was able to talk to them — talk to them about why it was happening and that as the plant got to operating efficiency it would disappear.”

When they encounter external stakeholders who question your company’s environmental performance, employees need a deep enough understanding of the issues to present clear and convincing counter-arguments. And they have to believe that your organization’s intentions are good.

Therefore, the sustainability manager’s challenge is to frame some of the more mercenary and strategic environmental activities in the context of shared values. So, how can you do that?

Step 1: Get HR on board.

At the hiring stage, managers should explicitly state the company’s values relating to employee health and safety and environmental management – and emphasize the company’s desire to hire people who share those values.

Step 2: Involve the communications team.

In regular internal communications, get your communications team to provide examples of how the company is “doing good” and frame those activities in the context of corporate values. Whether it’s releasing internal memos about your plans to achieve ISO 14001 certification, or posting video profiles of volunteer ambassadors on your intranet, find ways to communicate and positively frame your environmental activities.

Step 3: Empower employees through involvement.

Messages and slogans aren’t enough to persuade employees that your company is “doing good”. Create corporate volunteering opportunities or cross-functional “green teams” to reinforce the connection between organizational actions and employee values.

CSR Makes Good Financial Sense – And That’s OK

We all want to believe our superiors do good things for society altruistically. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. But employees can take comfort in knowing that CSR initiatives make good business sense and can drive the bottom line, while doing good for the planet at the same time.

Berry, G.R. 2004. “Environmental Management: The Selling of Corporate Culture.Journal of Corporate Citizenship. 16: 71-84.

Additional Resources

For more on this topic, read “CSR of Just “Good Management” – Which Drives Financial Performance?

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