Nicky is a CSR professional with 20 years’ experience in managing and directing corporate social responsibility in global companies. She runs her own CSR consultancy,Nicky Amos CSR Services Ltd. She spent ten years as Head of Corporate Responsibility for The Body Shop.
The gradual mainstreaming of corporate responsibility into the business agenda over the past decade has seen a proliferation of initiatives aimed at reducing risk, minimising the negative impacts of doing business, maximising productivity or market share and enhancing reputations.
A cursory glance at product advertisements is a stark illustration of how ‘being responsible’ has infiltrated not just the language but the psyche of companies who seek to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. In fact, few business leaders today are yet to be convinced that corporate responsibility has a legitimate and increasingly valuable role to play in ensuring that organisations remain competitive, resilient and attractive to investors, customers, employees, and the labour market at large.
So it is that corporate responsibility is omnipresent, yet this does not necessarily mean that organisations are becoming more responsible. There was a time not long ago, when organisations sought to emulate early corporate responsibility pioneers such as The Body Shop by becoming famous for being responsible. Their efforts to become the first carbon neutral organisation, or the largest company to source fair trade certified products, no doubt inspired countless others to adopt similar visions. Arguably, such pioneering efforts can be game changing – influencing entire market sectors and supply chains.
However, responsibility is not one-dimensional, as stakeholders are increasingly keen to remind organisations. There is little point in being hailed as responsible for creating innovative products aimed at combating climate change or eliminating forced labour in the supply chain if workplace health and safety is suffering as a result of increased stress or an inadequate safety culture. Many companies maintain that corporate responsibility boosts morale and productivity as employees unite behind a compelling vision to be great. Whilst this may be true, it can equally be argued that as many organisations singularly fail to achieve their corporate responsibility goals because they under-invest in their most critical corporate responsibility tool – their employees.
I have always maintained that it is the people within organisations that make them responsible, not the corporate entities themselves. If an organisation sets out to be recognised as responsible, it must start by focusing on its responsibility toward the people who will become the catalysts for change.
Companies need to break away from the belief that the way to get employees engaged around CSR is to get them to volunteer in the community – painting walls, for example, or clearing coppices. Whilst these activities can have some motivational impact on employees and can also offer a helpful resource to struggling local community groups, the reality is that real change happens when employees feel compelled to take action and influence behaviours of others as well as themselves.
Here are my top five tips for engaging employees around CSR:
1. Give them a reason to believe. Paint a picture of the change that needs to happen. One of my clients, a clothing retailer, wanted to campaign on the catastrophic effects of plastic waste in the oceans. The first step was to help employees understand the scale and size of the issue and, crucially, the relevance of the issue to the company.
2. Joining the dots. Having painted a compelling picture, the next vital step is to join up the dots – to provide a link between the cause and the effect. In other words, what are the primary causes of the destruction of the marine’s vital ecosystem and what needs to change?
3. Showing the way. Employees are most likely to respond to a call to action when there are clear pathways to solutions. Given the scale of most sustainability issues, it is not uncommon for people to feel disempowered, either because they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, or because they do not believe that their individual efforts will result in a meaningful difference. Work with issue experts – NGOs or academics are ideal sources of knowledge and guidance – to identify some simple solutions. Better still, involve employees and issue experts in brainstorming ideas around solutions, or hold a competition for employees to pitch their ideas to the experts. Don’t limit the solutions to what employees can do – as much as this is important. Think about employees as influencers of change – how can they multiply the effect of change through their interaction with others - customers, suppliers, families, community groups?
4. Providing the tools. Having identified the most relevant solutions, create some simple tools to help employees to take action. Equip them with FAQs (frequently asked questions) to help raise awareness and enable them to boost their confidence to talk about the issues with others. Provide accessible information, guidance and downloadable materials via the intranet. Engage the corporate communications team in using social media to spread the word and provide guidance to employees on how they can support these efforts.
5. Reinforce the message. Sustained engagement requires ongoing reassurance that individual and collective efforts are making a difference. Ask issue experts to provide some commentary and regular updates on what is happening – invite them into the head office or other locations to reinforce the message. Use emails or social media to poll employees on what is happening in their area of the business. Report on the outcomes of the changes. Consider putting in place a league table to challenge teams to compete with one another. Reinforce the learning by sharing experience from individuals and teams. Finally, recognise and reward outstanding performance to demonstrate to employees the power of individual and collective action. Show them that engagement really can make a difference.