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By Sarah B. Hood

In 2009, Strandberg Consulting prepared a report for Industry Canada, titled The Role of Human Resource Management in Corporate Social Responsibility.

It found a strong business case for HR professionals to play a key role in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities within their organizations, citing increased retention and cost savings among the benefits. How has CSR thinking evolved since then?

The Strandberg report defined CSR as “the balanced integration of social and environmental considerations into business decisions and operation.” However, these days, definitions vary.

“Generally speaking, it’s what you do above and beyond compliance with regulations: what your company does on a voluntary basis to meet the expectations not just of your shareholders but stakeholders – which, of course, includes employees,” said Signi Schneider, vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility for Export Development Canada.

Linda Fisher Thornton is the CEO of Virginia-based leadership development firm Leading in Context and author of 7 Lenses, Learning the principles and practices of ethical leadership. She says CSR is, above all, “an approach to business that incorporates a broad understanding of ethical responsibility, including a responsibility to support the good of society and the health of the planet.”

According to Paul Klein, founder and CEO of Impakt, a certified B Corporation that exists to create profitable social enterprises, “broadly, CSR refers to the ways in which a corporation contributes to positive social or environmental change. It encompasses governance issues, supply chain and ethical sourcing, community relations, social impact and environmental impact.”

There are numerous benefits for the companies that do CSR right.

“Consumers often look at a company’s ethical brand value when purchasing,” said Fisher Thornton. “Companies are finding that ‘doing good’ can have powerful positive effects on their organization's success.”

As for recruitment, “CSR is a powerful attractor of ethically-aware and socially-responsible job applicants,” she said. “A group of HR managers I worked with recently mentioned that applicants were asking about community service involvement and environmental sustainability as they were considering whether or not to accept a position at the company.”

A strong CSR mind-set can be an incredible asset for attracting top talent to an organization.

“Many HR studies show that CSR ranks among the top five reasons that talent will choose one company over another,” said Schneider. “I receive emails from employees who tell me how proud they are of the work that we’re doing.”

What’s HR got to do with it?

CSR fits naturally within the HR function.

“Human resources professionals often have the best idea of employee expectations,” said Schneider. This may be as simple as recognizing that employees are eager to support a current charity relief drive.

Senior executives are now coming to recognize the importance of questioning how social responsibility relates to the organization’s overall mission and mandate: “How do we change from CSR as a philanthropic costs centre to social change as a business opportunity?” said Klein. “HR is one of the most important aspects of that.”

Not every corporation needs an elaborate CSR program.

“For many companies, it’s a proxy for corporate donations. And that’s not wrong,” he said. “Then you’ve got a handful on the other end of the spectrum that are doing things really thoughtfully in a way that’s contributing to solving something and, I would argue, making a contribution to their business.”

Klein names two projects as head and shoulders above the rest: Bell Let’s Talk, the multi-year national campaign to bring mental health issues into the open, and one his firm works with, The Home Depot Canada Foundation’s “The Orange Door Project,” a three-year, $10-million commitment to helping end youth homelessness in Canada. It includes an initiative called Hire Up, Canada’s first national hiring portal for youth who have experienced homelessness, which will be rolled out at Home Depot stores across the country this year.

“Historically, The Home Depot Canada Foundation provided support specifically to affordable housing initiatives. In 2014, we completed a research project that showed the growing incidence of youth homelessness in Canada. With this knowledge, we decided to focus the majority of our efforts on this cause,” said Amanda Cornelisse, manager of community affairs and The Home Depot Canada Foundation.

The Home Depot “associates” are strongly engaged in the company’s CSR activities; its “Team Depot” contributed over 60,000 volunteer hours in 2015 to 285 hands-on service projects.

“They are also the driving force behind our annual in-store fundraising campaign in support of The Orange Door Project. In 2015, 182 Home Depot stores collectively raised more than $1.2 million for 120 unique charities across Canada,” said Cornelisse.

At Export Development Canada, employees can work for four months with Care Canada.

“They’re working overseas in what would normally be seen as a hardship post, but they absolutely love it,” said Schneider.

This kind of buy-in grows organically. One way to start is by setting up a cross-function committee or advisory teams around different focus areas, says Nan Oldroyd, an HR executive in Ontario.

“Communication [is also key], whether it’s a newsletter or internet or regularly occurring meetings. How do you tell the story about the progress you’ve made?” she said.

“Companies have found ways to embed this into hiring priorities and performance evaluation priorities,” said Klein. “If you are a sourcing person, finding ways to source ethically could become part of your evaluation and compensation.”

There is no single rulebook for HR professionals who are interested in furthering CSR strategies within their company; by their very nature, CSR activities must fit the personality of the organization.

“Often, CSR starts off as an initiative that employees bring forward,” said Schneider. “In a more mature state, it can be circumstances where employees are bringing forward questions about ethical issues or an environmental footprint.”

This type of situation could pertain to anything from encouraging double-sided photocopying to ensuring that no supplier is engaged in child labour. HR could anticipate this type of request by including CSR questions in routine employee surveys.

Sometimes the initiative is top-down: “We’ve seen many organizations where the CEO will see the need to meet a higher level of public expectation in a certain area; that, sometimes, is a good place to start,” said Schneider.

If a formal strategy is needed, “I would address it in the same way that you address business strategy,” said Oldroyd. “If you’re looking for a key priority to be incorporated into the business strategy, you create your business case. You sit down with the CEO and senior leadership team and talk about the key benefits of investing in it.”

A long-term process

“[Regardless of the approach,] implementing CSR is a long-term process that will require time and attention, and will involve everyone in the organization,” said Fisher Thornton. “It takes a strong awareness to succeed in making CSR a daily habit. Once there is strong awareness, leaders can invite employees to suggest ways that the organization could embrace CSR more fully in its daily work.”

Consistency and follow-through are also important to having CSR work properly.

“The critical thing with CSR is that you have to make the commitment. You have to public about it – externally and internally. You have to measure it, so you are accountable to it and you can celebrate milestones along the way, and it needs to be genuine,” said Oldroyd. “If you go into it because it’s about ‘looking good,’ that will not ring as authentic with investors, employees, customers or any other stakeholders.”

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