Corporate social responsibility belongs with HR

The triple bottom line merges social, environmental and economic performance, and HR is best positioned to pull it off

Even if it is not mentioned by name, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the talk of the town in corporate circles these days.

In the wake of corporate ethics meltdowns such as Enron and WorldCom, a rise in social activism and the pioneering performance of CSR leaders, serious questions are being asked about the role of corporations and how they can add to the greater good of everyone, not just shareholders.

But what is CSR? Traditional business focus is on the bottom line — economic performance. CSR expands this narrow focus to incorporate what is commonly referred to as the triple bottom line: social, environmental and economic performance.

Thus, the success of a company is gauged by not only its profits, but by how it functions with regards to such things as ethics, stakeholder relations and environmental responsibility. The range of programs and initiatives that fit into the definition of CSR is only limited by the number of companies that exist.

Companies making it happen

There are many examples of companies pursuing CSR, from creating excellent employee benefit and diversity programs, to donating time and money to communities, to creating green products or processes that don’t harm the environment.

Alcan, one of the biggest producers of aluminium in the world, speaks of a cradle-to-cradle philosophy with regards to their products. This means the products it creates can be recycled at the end of their lives and turned into new products — a practice that is both environmentally and economically efficient. As well, Alcan awards an annual $1-million sustainability prize to non-profits around the world that are helping to create a more sustainable future.

VanCity, a Vancouver-based credit union, takes part of its annual profits and provides grants to community groups in need of funding. VanCity also performs site audits at branches to ensure that each branch is using as little energy, water and materials as possible — another program that has both environmental and economic benefits.

Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. has the lofty goal of having its business leave an ecological footprint of zero — through recycling, the use of renewable resources, eco-efficiency and product stewardship.

Enter HR

So how does HR fit into the CSR picture? Can or should HR push the CSR agenda? The short answer is yes.

Where a company houses its CSR responsibilities within its existing corporate structure is often telling of how that company views CSR. Ideally, a company will have a senior executive who has been tasked solely with managing CSR. More often, CSR is tacked on to an existing portfolio of responsibilities, such as human resources. Where CSR is housed often defines the lens through which it is viewed, for better or for worse.

Placing CSR responsibilities within the marketing or public relations department means that CSR gets built into the communications and brand of the company, providing a clear connection between product and CSR. However, the danger is that the talk may outpace the walk, and claims of increased CSR may be just that — claims.

Placing CSR in the legal department ensures potential risks will be minimized. However, the legal department may get hung up on meeting regulations and minimum requirements, missing out on the chance for innovative, leading-edge changes.

In contrast, the HR department is uniquely positioned to incorporate CSR into the corporate agenda. A company can talk all it wants about the importance of CSR to its business, but if employees are not engaged, the endeavour will inevitably fail. Because of HR’s skills in people management, it has the ability to cut across all departments in instituting systematic change.

The risk for HR managers is that they may become too inwardly focused on staff initiatives, whereas CSR needs to be viewed much more holistically.

The basic principles of employee engagement can be readily translated into effective stakeholder engagement. The same tenets of trust, fairness and consensus building that HR practices are based on are vital to successful stakeholder engagement.

How QLT Inc.’s HR department leads CSR activities

QLT Inc. is a Vancouver-based global biopharmaceutical company with more than 300 employees. At QLT, the CSR mandate begins with business ethics and extends to a sense of responsibility toward others — from employees to stakeholders to the host community, said senior vice-president of human resources Linda Lupini.

The company is committed to practices “that promote a positive work environment for employees, that enhance the quality of life for people in the community, meaning anything from the people who live across from QLT or a school in the neighbourhood to the biotech industry and small companies.”

Thus, when QLT bought the land where the head office is located, it took on the stewardship of community relationships that the previous owner, Finning International, established in the East Vancouver neighbourhood. As part of that stewardship, the company organizes events like Christmas functions for neighbourhood kids and fundraisers for Mount Pleasant House, a nearby community services agency serving people in need.

Every year, QLT holds a company day for employees to get together for strategic planning for half of the day and team building the other half.

“But we decided our team building won’t be just some team building activity and that we had to leave something behind. This year, we decided to spend half the day cleaning up the beach in downtown Vancouver. We filled literally thousands of garbage bags.”

Lupini said CSR implementation requires multiple cross-functional efforts and effective working partnerships — something that HR is often skilled and experienced in.

“This was a natural fit for QLT,” said Lupini. This kind of agreement fit right in with QLT’s culture of honesty, integrity, ethical decision-making and community engagement.


If employees are not engaged, CSR becomes an exercise in public relations. The credibility of the organization will be damaged when it becomes evident that the company is not “walking the talk.”

There are many benefits to housing CSR in the HR department and many reasons why HR is well positioned to lead on CSR. These include:

Managing change: The two most important characteristics a company needs to possess to advance a sustainability agenda successfully are the capacity to lead and manage organizational change and the ability to innovate. HR is all about managing change within an organization and helping employees to learn and adapt to organizational shifts.

Delivery: The integrity and effectiveness of CSR is dependent on delivery against a clear and engaging corporate mission, not on flowery mission statements. HR houses many of the systems and processes that effective delivery depends on, such as recruitment, training and communication. HR people have the skills to engage employees from all facets of the organization, across all departments.

Performance management: Just like financial performance, CSR needs to be integrated into employee performance management and performance objectives. Making people accountable is essential to success, and HR has the tools and skills to make this happen.

Relationships and trust: So much of CSR is built upon creating and maintaining trust in relationships with stakeholders. Building relationships and trust is intrinsic to the daily functioning of HR departments, and as such, HR can use the people management skills it has developed to its advantage.

Cultural shift: CSR has to be embedded in the culture of the organization. HR can lead change within the company by engaging problem-solvers and working with a team across the full spectrum of the organization. Corporate culture is largely defined by the role of HR, and thus HR has the greatest ability to effect a change in that culture.

How firms benefit

Reputation: An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance. Those companies that embrace CSR reap the benefits of enhanced reputation among all stakeholders, from customers and shareholders, to business partners and governments.

License to Operate: Enhanced trust among stakeholders means that companies can gain support for their projects and earn themselves second chances based on that trust.

Safety and risk management: Effective CSR insulates companies from the real financial risks that arise from social, environmental and safety mismanagement.

Employee satisfaction: CSR leaders have the pick of the crop when it comes to recruiting and retaining top-notch talent. Studies show that workers prefer working for companies with strong environmental and social performance. Further, satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers.

Tips for HR practitioners

•CSR is really about change management. To succeed, CSR must be hardwired into the DNA of a company through a formal change process.

•CSR needs a high-level corporate champion. If this isn’t the CEO, it must be a senior position in the company if the CSR agenda is to be taken seriously.

•Engage people and build relationships. All CSR leaders consult with formal and informal advisors, inside and outside of the company.

•Although HR may be leading some out-of-the-box thinking, it is important to work with the company’s business strategy and planning people to ensure CSR becomes a part of the company’s overall vision and mission.

•Develop a support network at work and at home. This work is exhausting and complex and requires work across the entire organization and at all levels of management.

Adine Mees is president and CEO of the non-profit organization, Canadian Business for Social Responsibility. She may be reached at (604) 323-2714 or [email protected]. Jamie Bonham is researcher at the CBSR. She may be reached at (604) 323-2714 or [email protected].

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!