Seeking A Socially Responsible Employer
Not that it's a new idea. Business accountability has been kicking around for ages, before even Adam Smith and Karl Marx squared off over laissez-faire capitalism. Every so often it appears in an updated guise. Being a good corporate citizen. Doing well by doing good. Basically it means that employers should have more than just profit as their overriding goal.
Toby Heaps has his own definition of accountability. As the Managing Partner of Corporate Knights magazine, the only Canadian publication dedicated to CSR, he describes a socially responsible firm as one that 'balances financial returns with the concerns of its main constituencies: shareholders, employees, customers, citizens and nature.'
The Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability Commission goes further in its 2001 study, 'The New Balance Sheet' (www.corporate-accountability.ca.) They outline the key components of good corporate citizenry, including abiding by laws and regulations, respecting human and labour rights, applying environmental protection standards wherever possible, providing consumer protection and behaving ethically.
Worthy pursuits, all. But do they make for a better workplace?
According to Avie Bennett, Co-Chair of the Commission and Chair of McLelland & Stewart Ltd., a leading Canadian publisher, they inarguably do. 'You attract a better workforce that takes pride in its employer. People work harder, there is less turnover and the company is more welcome by the communities in which it operates.'
Maybe you're not convinced yet. If so, you're not alone. The Commission's study revealed that only half of Canadians believe there has been an increase in corporate responsibility over the last few years.
In part that's because 'there's too much emphasis on PR and not enough on real benefits,' according to Jim Stanford, Chief Economist at Canada's largest private sector union, the CAW. He adds that he's not against CSR per se. 'But a company must go beyond merely contributing to charity and polishing its image.'
Fortunately many companies have done precisely that. Westport Innovations Inc., a Vancouver-based company, developed a technology that allows diesel engines to operate using natural gas, which significantly cuts down on emissions. Zenon Inc., of Oakville, donated a drinking water plant to a community of the Temagami First Nation in Bear Island, Ontario. Husky Injection Molding Systems, in Bolton, recycled 95% of waste at their main plant. They also give out shares to employees if they ride their bikes to work.
Yet CSR is about much more than the environment. For instance, Cognos Inc., headquartered in Ottawa, is a member of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes. The company is notable for its human resources initiatives, such as formal employment equity and personal harassment policies, and a corporate volunteerism program. Then there's Paramount Resources Ltd., operating out of Calgary, boasting a significant proportion of women in senior management and on the board of directors. As for McLelland & Stewart, it uses Canadian printers whenever possible to support the local economy.
Laudable efforts, but even so-called responsible companies can be prone to bad behavior. RBC Financial Group, for example, is a gold medallist in the Corporate Knights list of Canada's 50 best corporate citizens. RBC donated over $26 million and provided sponsorships totaling $18 million in 2001. They also sell socially responsible mutual funds. Yet, according to Stanford, 'they ruthlessly fought against unionizing lower level workers because of the effect it would have on their bottom line.'
Meanwhile Cognos is identified by Dow Jones as having 'management capabilities in the environmental dimension [that] are poor compared to its industry peers, as it gives scant attention to the environmental impact generated from its operations.'
Too much smoke, too many mirrors.
All that would likely change if consumers started buying products and services only from socially responsive companies. A 1999 survey by Environics showed that 67% of North Americans would be willing to buy or boycott products on ethical grounds. In reality though, few people are willing to actually fork out more right now, according to the Corporate Accountability Commission's study cited earlier.
Ultimately companies may have no choice but to pursue social agendas as well as profits. 'Increasingly the whole issue of being a good company is not being driven by ethical, philanthropic, or vague concerns about social responsibility and corporate citizenship. They are going to be driven by the bottom line,' says Don Tapscott, international business consultant and co-author of The Naked Company: how the age of transparency will revolutionize business (Viking, mid-2003.)
In the interim, what should you look for when seeking an accountable employer to work for?
Heaps suggests that you search for a company with a reputation for community involvement, positive employee relations and diversity policies, product safety, solid business practices, environmental concern, plus strong international and corporate governance.
You could also 'look for unionized companies for a genuine say and protection against arbitrary treatment,' says Stanford.
Watch out, however, for companies that trumpet their responsibility programs too loudly. Those are often the ones who have skeletons in their closet.
Also, avoid employers who have great corporate citizenship but poor returns. 'A company must do all basics well, in addition to being transparent,' says Tapscott. He offers the Body shop as an example of a firm known for its admirable governance, but which is struggling financially.
Locating a socially responsible company is becoming easier, thanks to the proliferation of media reports on the topic. Beyond the Corporate Knights top 50 list (www.corporateknights.ca), Hewitt Associates publishes an annual ranking of Canada's 50 Best Employers (http://was.hewitt.com/hewitt/worldwide/canada/articles/best.htm).
Another source is the Social Investment Organization's catalog of responsible mutual funds (www.socialinvestment.ca/funds1.htm.) Select any of the thirteen funds covered and you'll find between 10 to 25 companies whose stocks are in that particular portfolio. That adds up to more than 150 potentially accountable employers right there.
Of course, not everything is online. Bennett, who is also Chancellor of York University, hopes that 'one day companies will report on corporate social responsibility just like they are required to do for financials.' For now he suggests that you look at public reports, charitable donations statements, annual reports and articles in newspapers and business magazines.
So after all is said and done, is it really possible to work for an employer that you can feel good about? As things stand, it's all relative. No organization does everything right all of the time. Then again, you don't want to be toiling away for Rothmans Inc., the only Canadian owned tobacco company, if you're a virulent anti-smoker. Nor should you be applying to job postings at Labatt's if you're stringently opposed to drinking.
The reality is that 'corporations exist to create value for shareholders -- full stop,' according to Tapscott. So private sector employers have a long way to go CSR-wise. There's always government, not-for-profit and academia, of course. But these options have their own built in limitations and they're not for everyone.
The trick is to settle on an employer that you believe in for the most part. One that reflects your key values. Otherwise, says Stanford, 'if you want to change the world, devote your time to causes that make a true difference.'
Author's Note: The mantra over at Google, one of the world's leading search engines, is "Do No Evil." You've got to love their moxy--however in practice it seems to be getting harder to live by this simple rule. Would you agree?
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