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HR should care about corporate social responsibility

It has a leadership role in driving CSR agenda

By Brian Kreissl

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) considers the social, economic and environmental impacts of an organization’s activities on a diverse group of stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, competitors, unions, governments, taxpayers, the broader community and the environment.

Yet, contrary to popular belief, having a commitment to CSR doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t strive to be financially successful.

In fact, there is some evidence being socially and environmentally responsible can actually have a positive impact on the bottom line. And if an organization isn’t financially successful, it can become more difficult to pursue certain components of its corporate social responsibility agenda, including corporate philanthropy and a commitment to fair labour practices.

Becoming socially aware and responsible helps organizations become good corporate citizens — something that will ultimately impact an organization’s public image and its reputation as an employer of choice. There’s also evidence to suggest employees of socially responsible companies are more highly engaged.

Nevertheless, there have been some very high-profile, real and perceived failures of corporate social responsibility in recent years. And organizations are often judged more harshly on their responses to such problems than on the fact they happened in the first place. News travels fast in this day and age, and can quickly “go viral.”

The role of HR

In spite of its importance, many people in HR would argue CSR is more the mandate of the CEO, marketing, public relations or even functions such as finance or purchasing. However, it’s important to remember we’re discussing corporate “social” responsibility here.

The social part suggests we’re talking about people — well within the scope of the HR function. Therefore, there is definitely a role for HR practitioners to play in all this.

The HR profession’s desire to be taken seriously as a strategic business partner is also important because CSR is one of those areas where HR professionals can move out of their comfort zones and play a more strategic role. In the future, some commentators (including PricewaterhouseCoopers) even suggest HR could become primarily responsible for an organization’s corporate social responsibility agenda.

But even today there are several existing areas falling squarely within the mandate of the typical HR department where HR practitioners can get involved.

For example, the HR function is normally responsible for drafting and implementing employee codes of conduct, which are typically included in an organization’s employee handbook. This is an ideal home for documenting an organization’s commitment to socially and environmentally responsible behaviours among its employees.

Codes of conduct typically include guidelines around safeguarding confidential information, accepting gifts, gratuities and kickbacks, proper financial controls and reporting mechanisms, protection of “whistleblowers,” conflicts of interest, anti-corruption and bribery and anti-nepotism policies.

Another area where HR can make a difference is in the area of employer branding. Employees want to work for organizations that are seen to have a strong commitment to CSR. Therefore, once a company has developed a real and meaningful commitment to CSR, it’s important to tout that as part of its overall employer branding strategy.

Fair labour practices are important in all stages of the supply chain. This applies to an organization itself and to those companies it deals with on a regular basis — including vendors, suppliers, customers and strategic partners — either in Canada or elsewhere. Organizations shouldn’t be engaging in a “race to the bottom” in locating to or sourcing products from jurisdictions with the lowest wages and least onerous labour standards, occupational health and safety legislation and environmental regulations.

This doesn’t mean organizations can’t set up shop in lower wage jurisdictions. They should, however, be prepared to pay living wages and to comply with the principles of fair trade.

Ethical labour practices also means refusing to accept products made in sweatshops, through forced labour or by child labourers. It includes compliance with legal requirements and best practices in employee and labour relations practices, internationally and in every jurisdiction where the organization does business.

Other types of HR programs are also important, including those that relate to the way employees are motivated and incented, recruited and promoted. This helps to ensure that the right behaviours are recognized, promoted and rewarded.

If you’re serious about become more socially responsible, real and meaningful cultural change is necessary in order to ensure a culture of responsible and ethical business practices and sustainability permeates the entire organization. While such messages begin with the CEO on downwards, HR can help cascade the message to all employees that unethical behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.    

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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