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Managing CSR in the workplace

Date: 18 May 2003

One of the last bastions of resistance to CSR programmes within corporates often seems to be the HR department. Given the significant range of issues owned here, that can be a real disadvantage. What are the corporate social responsibility issues that need to be managed in the workplace?

The relationship between a company and its employees can have a big impact on that other key relationship - that between the company and its customers. After all, whether the customer trusts and values the company is likely to hinge on the impression created by its human face. If the employees are disgruntled or cynical this will lose no time in communicating itself to others who deal with the business.

So the first question comes down to how employees are dealt with, and whether they feel a sense of motivation and pride in working for the company. Traditionally, this has come down to areas such as the following:

* Remuneration: does the company pay a fair wage (the concept of a 'living wage' in developing countries is a point of some dispute, but the basic point being that paying industry norms that do not provide enough to meet basic living requirements is not good enough)?

* Employee development: does the company invest in training and development for its staff? Is employee development a consistent part of the appraisal process?

* Is the employee consulted about policies and procedures that may affect the working environment?

* Work-life balance: does the company enable working arrangements that suit the individuals need through approaches such as home / flexi working, provision for religious observance, support for carers etc.

* Health and safety: does the company comply with all applicable health and safety legislation? Does it go beyond this to show a genuine care about the health and well being of its people?

* Diversity: does the company respect all current and potential employees by valuing them for themselves, and avoiding placing artificial barriers or distinctions based on any aspect of the differences between them?

* Consistency across different working environments: does the company apply basic minimum standards - the respect for human rights and dignity - in all countries where it operates and does business? Although local working conditions may vary depending on the culture and practice of the country concerned, do the core values still apply in how the company responds to these?

The best companies probably go beyond this, and succeed in making their employees understand the value of their work in terms of the bigger picture. Nobody wants to be just a cog in the machine. Good companies communicate their game plan throughout the workforce, and how each individual is helping to achieve the goal. The line here, as is often the case, between CSR and plain good management is rather blurred.

The second area is more difficult - how the company handles the implications of hard times for the workplace. There is no immediate consensus on what constitutes good practice in this case.

Do compulsory redundancies need to take place at all? Certainly, research by the International Labour Organisation has suggested in the past that many of the redundancy programmes of major companies fail to achieve the projected savings hoped for - largely because of the impact of losing mature, talented people who know the business. However, although some companies have done extremely well through a high profile 'no compulsory redundancies' route, there is certainly no consensus that such a position is the only port of call for the socially responsible company.

So if compulsory redundancies do occur, how can they be handled in an open, respectful and supportive manner? Some companies have undertaken such exercises with active employee placement services, counselling, retraining and generous redundancy terms.

The key factor not to forget is how you deal with those people left behind. It's easy to focus solely on the people who leave - but the business is most often damaged by the extremely low morale of the people left. The process of downsizing may have fundamentally shaken the employees' faith in the company. They may be struggling to cover a significantly increased workload. They may well fear that it is simply a matter of time before they are next. As ever, good communication and consistent engagement is the key.

The third area involves the role that employees have to play in ensuring that the company stays true to its values, and delivers on its CSR programmes. This would involve such features as:

* A statement of values: giving clear direction on how employees are expected to behave.

* A code of conduct: explicitly giving direction on avoiding situations contrary to the company's values - such as those involving the taking of bribes or other forms of corruption.

* A clear set of processes: good communication and training supporting a solid management framework to achieve organisational objectives, such as reducing or recycling the amount of workplace waste, and enforcing basic health and safety rules.

* Provision for, and the protection of, whistleblowers.

Finally, there are some rather important grey areas - issues that are held by some to be highly contentious.

For instance, although everyone may agree in principle that stakeholder consultation is a mighty fine thing, opinions are much more mixed of the European development of employee councils - where employee representatives become an integral part of the decision making of the organisation. Certainly the extent to which there is a mechanism for genuine employee consultation and involvement is something for which there is no single clear view on what constitutes good practice.

Also, there are issues such as privacy. Some companies routinely monitor employee use of email and the internet. Others believe that such an open lack of trust fundamentally damages the relationship. But likewise, it can be a sound part of due diligence by a company that deals with sensitive matters seeking to reduce risk for its customers.

One of the other factors of CSR in the workplace comes down to how the company responds to extraordinary circumstances. One of the most high profile instances of this is the companies operating in South Africa who have adopted active policies to seek to support employees who have contracted HIV/AIDS. It may also include how the company responds to situations where employees are at a heightened risk of terrorist or otherwise dangerous situations. For example, concern for the welfare of employees led many companies to sever links with the animal research firm Huntingdon Life Sciences following threats and assaults against staff by animal rights extremists. On the one hand, this may be seen as socially responsible, since the safety of the employee comes first. On the other, the action is extremely problematic, since it feeds and reinforces the aggressive tactics which become seen as being successful tools to attack target companies.

At the end of the day, how a company relates to its own people will be make or break in terms of its reputation as a corporate citizen. The issues affecting the workplace are wide-ranging and significant. Addressing them can go some way towards bridging the gap between the rhetoric of being 'an employer of choice' and the reality. Alternatively, having the HR Director as the last one on board for a company's CSR programme is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

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