Be an Insider On Social Responsibility

By Adrienne Fox Feb 1, 2008

HR Magazine, February 2008 Leading the movement at your organization can benefit your career.

Human resource professionals can tie what they do to business strategy, impact the bottom line, gain respect of the C-suite and boost their careers with three little letters: C-S-R. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), also called sustainability or citizenship, contributes "to sustainable development by working to improve quality of life with employees, their families, the local community and stakeholders up and down the supply chain," according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a Geneva-based global association of companies.

CSR has been sweeping the global business community as companies seek to position themselves as both profitable and responsible. Within companies, the movement tends to happen organically and without any clear functional leader. In one company, the marketing department may lead the CSR strategy, while in another it may be the environmental sciences division.

With no convention set, HR professionals have an opportunity to step up and fill the CSR leadership void. It makes sense for HR to lead CSR: Recruitment, retention, morale, productivity, recognition and rewards as well as innovation are major components of a CSR strategy. (For more information on CSR and HR, see Corporate Social Responsibility Pays Off, in the August 2007 online edition of HR Magazine.)

"CSR aligns HR with the goals of the company and the C-suite," says Tareyece Scoggin, SPHR, employee relations manager at Standard Parking in Chicago, who drives CSR at her company. "So much of the CSR sweet spot [where social good overlaps business opportunity] lives in HR. We have a unique position to leverage the human capital that we're charged with recruiting, retaining and developing. In the end, we are able to be much more of a business partner through CSR."

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. HR professionals are directly involved in CSR activities, according to 2007 Corporate Social Responsibility, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). But only 13 percent of HR professionals were mainly responsible for creating CSR strategy, and 23 percent were charged with implementing the strategy.

"A lot of times [the responsibility for] CSR falls to the public relations and marketing departments, but if you start talking to CEOs about morale, loyalty and employer-of-choice [through CSR], it becomes very obvious that HR needs to lead it," says Lin Blair, SPHR, HR project leader at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield in Little Rock. "But HR needs to raise its hands."

The skills needed to create and lead a CSR strategy dovetail nicely with HR professionals' backgrounds, experience and expertise. The bonuses: CSR can raise their profiles and expose them to more areas of business.

As opposed to public relations, marketing or finance, HR professionals already work with the organization's entire human capital, notes Scoggin, who serves on the SHRM Corporate Social Responsibility Special Expertise Panel. "We are already collaborating with other functions. We are negotiating daily and using our soft skills--all of which are necessary to gain acceptance of CSR." As employee relations manager, Scoggin has heard from employees that they want a more organized CSR effort at the company. "HR is leading the dialogue at Standard because I bring it up," she says, simply.

While one function may lead CSR, it must be a multifunctional effort--requiring another important skill set of HR pros."There needs to be collaboration," explains Lew Karabatsos, executive vice president of client relations at CreateHope, a citizenshipconsulting firm in Washington, D.C."HR shouldn't drive the environmental agenda, for example, but it needs to work with the environmental folks to embellish on that strategy."

Many companies may invoke the words "ethical" and "responsible," but unless employees live those words from the CEO on down, there will be no real impact of CSR on the business strategy. Ron Vassallo, managing director, international, at Create Hope, adds, "Despite the fact that CEOs or the board might be behind the cause, [they] don't give it legs. Employees are cynical. CSR only gets legs and acceptance when employees embrace it. HR can engage employees in the strategy." (For a list of traits needed to succeed in this role, see "Attributes Needed to Lead," to the right.)

Where Does HR Start?

When companies need help creating and implementing CSR strategies, they may turn to Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a San Francisco nonprofit that provides CSR solutions for 250 member companies and other enterprises.

"Often, there's been a mandate from a CEO and a job created" to pursue a CSR strategy, says Emma Stewart, BSR director of environmental strategy. "There's so much jargon and science involved, the learning curve is steep. But, actually, it's better if you promote from within because someone inside knows the business, what employees are capable of and where the opportunities for CSR lie."

Stewart says the successful CSR leader knows the politics of the organization and how--and with whom--to get things done. That person may continue to lead the CSR initiative even if the operation gets larger as the company starts to hire content experts, such as environmentalists or labor-rights advocates.

First, get acquainted with the terminology. "You don't need to go deep, but you need to understand what CSR means for your company," says Stewart. "Then, look at what's going on internally and get plugged into whatever group is driving CSR activities, if any. Do an internal scan because it's often a surprise how much is going on, but no one is knitting it together."

Once the audit is complete, look for opportunities to improve on CSR. "Look at the siloing obstacle and see what bridges you can build to increase the information flow, especially between R&D [research and devel opment] and the CSR practitioners," says Stewart. "You can 'green' or make responsible your facilities, but until your products or services innovate around it, you're only doing part of the work." Although HR is a good candidate to lead CSR, Stewart has found that it rarely does. "It's usually someone from marketing or public relations," she says. "Promoting someone from communications or marketing always worries us because the motivation is external [PR] rather than internal. It says a lot about the company's motivation."

What's in It for HR?

If CSR is a sweet spot of social good overlapping business opportunity, then it is also a sweet spot for HR where business strategy overlaps HR responsibilities. "If you are working on CSR initiatives, you are being strategic; it's no longer an ephemeral topic," says Scoggin. "It's a way to align the HR function with business objectives, with our career advancement and [with] the advancement of the profession." It also gives HR visibility on a global scale. "It's one of the few initiatives that is both strategic and global but also has the visibility of the CEO and board," says Vassallo.

Armed with an internal audit and research on how CSR can impact the bottom line and open up new markets and new product and service opportunities, HR can make a convincing business case to the C-suite. "CEOs have read about what other companies are doing in CSR," says Blair, who also serves on SHRM's Corporate Social Responsibility Special Expertise Panel. "So, if you go to your CEO with a list of all the things the company is already doing and how it affects the bottom line, you will have an eager listener." Then, HR professionals can showcase how their strengths make them ideal leaders. "CSR shows senior management the leadership ability of HR, the initiative and HR's ability to think outside the box," says Karabatsos.

Scoggin has demonstrated those capabilities by raising awareness of CSR at Standard Parking. "I've had a huge opportunity [through CSR] to be exposed to things going on nationally and internationally," says Scoggin. "It has broadened my focus and understanding of the ways I can develop myself. It has helped me focus on what I need to do to stop being a police officer and to start being a business partner."

But for HR professionals to capitalize on this trend, they need to learn "what CSR is and how it can be leveraged," says Blair. "Once that education starts to happen, I think HR will embrace it and recognize how it can advance the profession."

Adrienne Fox is a contributing editor of HR Magazine.

Web Extras

Online sidebar:
Consider a Degree in Corporate Social Responsibility 

SHRM article:
Corporate Social Responsibility Pays Off (HR Magazine

SHRM pilot study:
2007 Corporate Social Responsibility: United States, Australia, India, China, Canada, Mexico and Brazil 

SHRM research:
Corporate Social Responsibility: HR’s Leadership Role 

Web sites:

Business for Social Responsibility

Attributes Needed To Lead

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) experts and HR professionals interviewed agree that any CSR leader must have the following traits to make the initiative successful:

  • Respect. To get buy-in from management and employees, you need to have respect and credibility in the organization.
  • Ability to collaborate. CSR is a multifunction discipline, bringing together leaders and experts in research and development, operations, marketing, finance, and people management.
  • Persuasiveness. Until CSR is embedded in organizational goals and operations, you need to convince key people that this is worth the effort.
  • Ability to think outside the box. CSR strategy is about seeing the big picture and where opportunities lie to capitalize on new markets, products or services, or how to save money on waste, turnover and inefficiency.
  • Ability to measure. You have to prove that CSR forges new ground and saves money.
  • Passion. You can't convince upper-level managers and employees to back your vision if you don't believe in it yourself.

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