Corporate Social Responsibility:
The current and future state of CSR in a COVID-19 Framework
A Two Part Reflection
The United States is experiencing a staggering public health and economic shock. Society is adapting to an enemy that cannot be seen and one against whom the only action most can take is inaction. This “new normal” has been difficult for the American fighting-spirit to come to terms with. At the same time as Americans struggle with the intangible effects of morale, the tangible effects of the coronavirus include rising mortality and unemployment rates. Companies are faced with the harsh reality of balancing their economic stability, while reaffirming their corporate values in the face of employment uncertainty. It is easy to see that the corporate routines of life will be greatly altered over the foreseeable weeks, months and years. Prior to COVID-19 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs were blossoming. But now, what role does CSR play in how companies define themselves? Based on more than ten years of developing CSR strategies for companies, my experience leads me to believe that although corporate life will rapidly change, the core CSR principles will stay the same. However, the emphasis, clarity, and communication around CSR strategies will be paramount to shape effective corporate culture and stakeholder engagement. In this two-part series I will share how to adapt to make your Corporate Social Responsibility program flexible and effective in our post-COVID society.
Addressing the internal priority of Corporate Social Responsibility is the most important step. The first principle of being a socially responsible company comes from treating your employees, supply chain and external operations in a responsible manner. This operational responsibility falls on executives and Human Resources (HR) teams. In this evolving time of difficult choices, it is critical to build consistent communications plans for employees, contractors, furloughed staff and laid off individuals. These company stakeholders need to understand not only what decisions are made, but also what the decision-making process is and the values underlying those decisions. Tough decisions are unavoidable, but social responsibility is rooted in human decency and believing that individuals have the intellect to understand these choices. It is also rooted in sincere empathy that strives to understand and appropriately respond to the varied employee reactions surrounding corporate action.
The internal piece of HR and operational responsibility is core to Corporate Social Responsibility. But more and more, I am questioned about the future of outward facing CSR efforts and initiatives, such as supporting financial literacy for veterans or volunteering with community food kitchens. In a time of hunkering down and conserving cash, do these initiatives still have a place? The answer is YES. It is important to realize that external facing CSR program quality is not defined by how much it costs, or how much a company donates. Instead, its quality is derived from the program’s accessibility to employees, the consistency of cause, and the tangible impact and balance of scale with individual consequence.
Corporate Social Responsibility was not growing pre-COVID because it was a shiny way to earn goodwill with excess staff or excess cash on the balance sheet. CSR was growing because it was good for business and good for the bottom line. Even in times of great strain on cash and resources, CSR efforts remain beneficial for the bottom line. While CSR will evolve like every other aspect of life, the fundamentals remain the same. Schools are virtual, but they are still holding class. Meetings are remote, but businesses still rely on core financial statements. Similarly, CSR should move forward with new rigor, adapting to the realities of the day, but anchored in the time-proven drivers of success.
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