Sunday, November 22, 2009

HR behind the times on CSR

The Human Resources function is a critical partner in the development of a responsible and accountable corporate culture. Corporate Responsibility is often referred to as improving impacts on stakeholders. Nothing new here. Employees are stakeholders. Nothing new here either. The better you treat, or impact on, your employees, the better the business will perform. Numerous statistics and surveys prove this correlation. The engagement of every employee in the business is really the only way to ensure flawless corporate responsibility.  I am reading Adam Werbach's book at the moment, Strategies for Sustainability, and quite by chance, or not, he makes the same point - more eloquently than I do, I must admit. However, it's nice to be in such illustrious Company. Adam says: ... "to execute a strategy for sustainability, you must engage individuals personally" (page 132).

Ultimately, corporate reponsibility is not just about treating employees well, or investing in their development, or providing a ramp if they are in a wheelchair. It's not only about how satisfied they are on the job. Corporate responsibility is transforming every employee into an ambassador of the corporate responsibility message of the business. Ensuring that they understand, are involved, are inspired and know where they can play a role. This means moving from impacts ON employees to impacts OF employes. Each employee in the business interacts with any number of stakeholders every day, maybe thousands of daily connections. This potential, to turn every single stakeholder interaction into one which moves the CSR agenda forward, is more powerful than almost any other single business activity.

CSR reporting is often seen as something which primarily benefits employees. Through the report, they get a comprehensive view of the way their Company interprets and progresses sustainability themes. Often, the CSR report contains news and information which had not cascaded through to them via regular internal communication channels.  In some cases, Corporate Reponsibility reports even state the names of individuals in the Company who are responsible for progressing different action items - an example of this is Vancouver City Savings Union (Vancity) (page 35). But when I recently tried to ascertain how many Companies actually track how many employees read all or part of their reports, I couldnt get an answer.

I found one example of something coming close to this on the Adidas website where readers of their online report are asked to own up and identify themselves. The results are displayed in a neat graph.

We dont know how many people took this survey, and I am not quite sure what the difference is between an employee and a worker, but this is a great way to see what kind of people are taking interest in the report. And a very brave move on the part of Adidas to have an open survey such as this on their reporting site . In a recent dialogue with Symantec,  i understood  they progress many activities in the framework of internal communications to ensure employees are aware and engaged. But, bottom line is, overall, we DON'T KNOW if employees take any sort of interest in one of the most important documents the Company publishes to stakeholders, and if they are capable of being the ambassadors for that document, and the Company.

Who is repsonsible for this ? After the CEO, it has to be the HR Function. The HR function must ensure proceses are developed within the busnesss to raise employee awareness of key strategies and processes, especially those which are in the public domain. Why doesnt HR do this ? Because, I submit, most HR Managers just don't see how they link to Sustainability strategy, beyond matters relating to ethics and values, and sometimes, community volunteering (because no-one else does it). Most HR Managers really don't see the relevance of ensuring high quality communications and dialogue about sustainability programs. When was the last time you had a progressive conversation with an HR Manager about sustainability in the supply chain and the HR role which supports that ? How do HR Managers recruit people into sustainability jobs ? In what ways does HR adopt sustainable practices  as a function ? Most HR Managers cannot tell you. The HR function has still not grasped the principles of a stakeholder society and stakeholder-driven business.

This is a pretty damming picture of HR people. This is why i am writing a book as a guide for HR Managers on all things sustainability and corporate reponsibility, due for publication next year. In order to test my theory, I produced a short survey for HR Managers. Of the lowish number of responses I have had to date, this is some of the initial data:
  • 100% of HR Manager responders say that HR Managers need to have some understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility
  • 54% of HR Managers say CSR  is something they are involved with as part of their ongoing role
  • 80% and 70% respectively say this involvements relates to ethics and community involvement, with zero being involved in supply chain practices and external stakeholder engagement.
  • 45% said that HR Managers need additional skills (and knowledge) to support CSR
  • 30% said they had targets related to CSR
and one HR Manager, in responding to the question "What does the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility mean to you ?"  wrote : "Sustainability" . Well, at least that's something.

So, they all think it's important, half of them are responsible for it (in a limited way), and a third are measured on it. Less than half think they need to learn new ways of doing things in order to do it. Frankly, I think this is a saddish picture of the HR function. And i am keen to get a wider sample of opinions from a broader range of HR Managers so PLEASE pass this on to any HR Manager you know and request they complete the survey HERE:
I promise to update you all with the results. Thank you !

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm . Visit our website at:


Anonymous said...

In case you've missed it - at GreenBiz is a story, titled "The Role of Human Resource Management in Corporate Social Responsibility", with links to relating report and checklist by Coro Strandberg Consulting (dated May 2009)

Unknown said...

You're absolutely right that employees are a key audience for CSR reports. In fact, that was a key premise when we created the Public Service Electric & Gas (New Jersey's largest electric and gas utility) 2007 Environmental Leadership Report. This report was a key component in PSEG's strategy to become regarded as an environmental thought leader. We knew our first order of business was to educate employees and prepare them to act as brand ambassadors. Our efforts were strikingly successful, according to a survey we conducted shortly after releasing the report. Roughly 95 percent of employee respondents agreed or strongly after reading the report that 1) PSEG was an environmentally responsible company, 2) the report helped them better understand the company's environmental record, and 3) they felt better prepared to discuss PSEG's environmental accomplishments. Unfortunately, neasuring results of communication initiatives is often neglected. BTW, we handled the CSR report and related communications out of the PSEG corp comm department, not the HR department.

elaine said...

Cindy, thank you, this is a great story and a super example of employee engagement. 95% is a very strong figure. Thanks for sharing this. I would like to understand more about how your HR department supported this - could you make contact with me at so that we can talk ? thanks, elaine

elaine said...

hello "Anonymous"
Thank you, yes, I have seen the article in Greenbiz and the Strandberg material. Many thanks!

Sandra van der Lingen said...

Hi Elaine, thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I agree that HR plays a role in building the corporate culture and communicating the CSR messages but I don't think they come right after the CEO. From an employee point of view, the person who influences me the most is my direct manager. So in my view the person who is most important after the CEO is the direct manager and not HR. If a company manages to get these people motivated, most work is done. Perhaps I'm a bit sceptical about HR people (sorry, don't take it personally if you work in HR). In the companies I've worked for they did not play a strategic role.

elaine said...

Sandra, thank you for reading the blog and for your comments. Of course, you are absolutely correct. Direct managers should be the ones to motivate, communicate, set personal example. The function of HR is to create capability, deliver process, create coordinated internal communications tools so that the Direct Managers can do their stuff more effectively. I used to direct HR in a global Company and still consider myself an HR professional but like you, i also notice that HR in many companies is not at the driving wheel with the rest of the leadership. This is a big shame.

best wishes, elaine

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