Sustainability & CSR Consultant Broomes Consulting
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Purpose-driven CSR: why an integrated approach is the way forward

In the first of a two-part content series on strategic CSR, Veronica Broomes explains why HR professionals need to move away from the traditional, narrow view of CSR as an ‘add on’ to everyday business activity, and instead move towards a more embedded approach. 

13th May 2020
Sustainability & CSR Consultant Broomes Consulting
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Growth concept. Group holding a seedling plant.
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Traditionally, HR is associated with philanthropic activities such as employee volunteering, donating to charities and the sponsorship of sport activities. But now more than ever, HR advisers, directors and managers need to be catalysts in delivering purpose-driven and strategic approaches to corporate social responsibility (CSR). These approaches must reflect that CSR is embedded into the core operations of the organisation, and is not just an 'add-on' or PR exercise.

HR continues to deliver CSR through the narrow lens of philanthropy. This means that huge additional benefits arising from a deeper and more strategic approach to CSR remain unrealised.

Employees want to be associated with organisations and brands that act responsibly as corporate citizens. Simultaneously, customers and the wider public are more questioning of brands. These stakeholders demand greater transparency and accountability in how firms engage with society and use our planet’s resources. 

To enable strategic CSR, HR needs to be at the forefront of making a business case for it. Four key pillars of sustainability must underpin this:

  • Environment (planet)
  • Social (people)
  • Economic (profit)
  • Governance (transparency and accountability)

The role of HR in promoting strategic approaches 

Over the past 15 years, HR teams 'saddled' with CSR responded to requests for organisations to have a 'human face' through CSR initiatives that allowed staff to invest time and/or money in local communities. Apart from PR and increasing brand awareness among the local community, there is often no direct link with the core operations of the business.

In 2013, CSR and HR expert Elaine Cohen observed that despite many years of active engagement with CSR, businesses continue to take a rather restricted view of what is done through HR. Whilst much has changed since then – including a heightened awareness of the implications of global climate change – HR continues to deliver CSR through the narrow lens of philanthropy. This means that huge additional benefits arising from a deeper and more strategic approach to CSR remain unrealised.

Taking a more strategic approach not only allows for the embedding of CSR in core operations, but also in the process improves brand positioning, and deepens the organisation’s relationship with its employees, customers and communities.

How can HR challenge the status quo?

Increased knowledge and a deeper understanding of CSR will help HR teams identify how they can play a meaningful role in evolving more purposeful approaches to CSR.
For example, developing a more strategic approach could mean having more focused engagement with local secondary schools, with a view to securing future potential employees from among their students.

CSR will cease to be a peripheral ‘add on’ to mainstream business activities, and instead become embedded in its core operations. 

Engagement activities could include awards to support and recognise achievements in STEM subjects, or current employees serving as volunteer interviewers in ‘practice interviews’ for work-related learning.

Not only could these kinds of activities raise brand awareness, but they would also help the organisation to reach students from more diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and increase the chances of HR finding talented potential employees from the local community.  

You may be ‘doing CSR’ without knowing it

Another example of strategic CSR is paying attention to things you might already be doing that can have an impact. Work/life balance is integral to the wellbeing of employees and this is manifest in flexible working options promoted by HR. What remains unacknowledged, however, is that flexible working is also a way to reduce carbon emissions in workplaces when employees travel at least one day less every week.

Similarly, pensions may not be an area traditionally associated with CSR, but here again we can find an example. As pension funds seek to de-risk carbon emissions in investment portfolios, more are including questions about the ESG (environment social governance) profiles of companies as part of their due diligence.

Providing information to employees about their pensions in this regard shows that your company cares about CSR. Employees may also want reassurance that their pensions are not invested in fossil fuel companies or in activities that conflict with their core values.

Broadening your CSR horizons

Moving away from the traditional narrow interpretation of CSR will result in a monumental shift for most organisations. CSR will cease to be a peripheral ‘add on’ to mainstream business activities, and instead become embedded in its core operations. This can only be of benefit to employee attraction, engagement and retention and make the business more competitive in the long-term.   

Interested in this topic? Read Sustainable capitalism: business as a force for positive change.

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