By Louise Davey
Illustration: Baiba Black
Today’s organizations are expected to provide employees with meaningful work opportunities unrelated to their operations
Anyone on the front lines of the human resources recruitment process knows corporate values have become very important to candidates and employees. The tables are turned in many interviews as changing demographics in the North American workforce shift the power relationship between candidate and hiring firm, particularly if the candidate is a high performer. Candidates are asking about the organization’s social profile, its position on environmental issues, its community work and programs that enable employees to participate in socially responsible activities.
Organizations that focus on the bottom line and short-term variables may be oblivious to this change, but successful organizations are taking note. Firms acting in the best interests of their business understand the value of an engaged workforce and embrace and showcase their social responsibility. While many are prepared to make the shift because it is the right thing to do, there is increasing evidence of bottom-line benefits over the long term to firms aligning their policies with a new social consciousness.
Role of the organization in society
Those who question the significance of the relationship between commerce and social values need only to look back over the past 100 years. Few periods have been marked by such rapid social change as that of modern industrialization. These associations have been aptly described by Tod Maffin, a social media strategist and thought leader in business innovation. He summarizes the major changes that have defined the past four decades as: the 1970s — stability; the 1980s — money; the 1990s — balance; and 2000s — meaning.
New and far-reaching challenges
The success of a professional services firm is highly dependent on the quality of its people. Finding high-quality employees will become increasingly challenging over the next decade and a half as North America’s baby boomers retire and the resource pool to replace them becomes stretched. “Organizations that truly understand and embrace the current cultural trends will be in the strongest position to succeed, grow and prosper,” says Maffin. For a professional services firm whose product is its people, this entails hiring and retaining the most qualified human resources. Because the best and brightest want meaning in their lives, they will seek organizations that have an awareness of and a manifest preoccupation with social and environmental matters. They will join firms that offer an attractive work environment, support their need for fulfilment and articulate clear objectives pertaining to broader nonbusiness issues. Socially responsible firms will thus benefit from the optimal and sustainable output of content and well-rounded employees, gaining market share on their less enlightened competitors.
Making it happen: top down and bottom up
To advance along the path of heightened social responsibility, an organization must believe in the importance of this notion. Those leading the initiative must be passionate about social and environmental issues and must not approach their role as a sideline but that of leading the attainment of key organizational objectives.
As with any cultural shift, the most successful recipe will be a blend of top-down and grassroots approaches. The tone must be set from senior management, providing a clear and consistent message that social and environmental issues are important, that all employees are encouraged to participate in chosen initiatives and that their involvement will not be viewed as a waste of time. An effective way to accomplish this and to recognize employee contributions to social and environmental projects is to acknowledge these accomplishments in the annual performance evaluations.
In some cases where a firm has a history of financial support to charitable and nonprofit organizations, getting senior leadership to accept the program will not be difficult. The challenge is to transform an unseen and unsung series of financial transactions into a living, breathing experience for employees.
While top-down leadership is essential, it is the employees who will drive these projects and adopt social responsibility as part of a firm’s culture and values. In this respect, it is not something that management can dictate or that an organization can fake. Social responsibility must become an integral part of business strategy and relevant issues must be the object of decisive action for a firm to achieve credibility and success in this area. In effect, it must sincerely engage in a corporate transformation that aims to deal with social and environmental issues in a responsible and coherent manner. Only then will it bridge the gap between leadership rhetoric and true cultural change.
The focus on social responsibility contributes toward creating an environment for employees to learn and grow professionally and personally. Activities that make a significant difference to society and involve all staff are excellent for morale and for developing team spirit. Taking the experience of RSM Richter’s Montreal office as an example, during last June’s Community Day the office was effectively shut down so everyone could participate in community work in support of six local organizations chosen by the members of the firm. Many junior staff took on team leadership positions. In these roles, leaders were expected to direct partners and senior employees on how and where to lend a hand with renovations, tree-planting and other projects. Others who had experience in dealing with people with intellectual or physical disabilities helped coworkers understand how to interact in emotionally complex situations; some spoke of their personal experiences to prepare volunteers. Everyone gained more insight into themselves and their coworkers.
In addition to a sincere approach to the matter, cross-organizational integrity in living and communicating the message is critical to success. As an example, the 2007 recruitment campaign at RSM Richter was consistent with the firm’s social responsibility initiative. All products distributed to prospective hires, the messaging and the third parties organizing the events were held to the new corporate standards. Students were invited to go to the website to access information. All promotional products were green or fair-trade, and most students chose to exchange their personal gifts for a donation to a children’s charity.
On the green front, initially the strategy targeted abuses that could readily be neutralized. This involved replacing water bottles with carafes, ensuring that all paper was recycled and printing was double sided. Most recently, the program has shifted to reducing power usage. Each employee is engaged in the process. Employees and partners who neglect to shut down their computers or shut off their lights at the end of the day are served with an infraction. Policies relating to transportation, which accounts for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, are being looked into. For example, parking allocation will be revamped to promote public transportation and carpooling.
The client’s perspective
Clients choose like partners. As trusted advisers to whom they turn for direction, they expect that professionals have the expertise to counsel them. How can this role be fulfilled unless advisers strive to be recognized business leaders and assume a leading role in addressing issues of social responsibility?
If clients believe that there is little difference between the leading professional services firms with respect to their technical competencies, the differentiation is very pronounced in matters of social responsibility. Clients tell us they are pleased and proud when they hear of our social engagement and commitment to the environment, because they share these concerns and want to work with like-minded firms.
Build your case on successes
Success is a qualifier that can only be measured at the end of a project and does not necessarily recognize all the issues that may arise along the way. And success is not achieved without vaulting a few hurdles. The major obstacles that may impede an organization in its quest to focus on social responsibility are the same as in any large change initiative: they are generally localized around a few vocal individuals resistant to change. When implementing a social responsibility change program, or any change program for that matter, accept and embrace such opposition, view it as just another business challenge and adopt a business approach. To build your case, it helps of course if you can point to tangible results.
The bottom line: costs and returns
If the fact that your competitors have already joined the movement does not incite you to follow suit, you may want to question the economics. Specifically, how much does social responsibility cost and is this investment worthwhile? In many cases, the work can be completed with little to no incremental costs. Start-up costs can be negligible, while maintenance costs usually consist of the time dedicated by professionals to social and environmental issues. In RSM Richter’s experience, the programs had very little impact on billable hours overall. The few tangible expenses, such as metal cutlery to replace plastic, were covered by material savings, as annual paper consumption was reduced by more than 750,000 sheets and more than 90,000 Styrofoam cups and 30,000 water bottles a year were eliminated.
As to the benefits, the appreciation of employees and partners for these programs is most valuable. When surveyed this spring, 91% of employees endorsed the firm’s position that it is important for it to practise socially responsible policies.
The program’s success also played a pivotal role in the firm’s nomination as one of Montreal’s top employers in 2008, as well as in the notable improvement in employee satisfaction in the areas of leadership and internal communications. Furthermore, the 2007 recruitment campaign broke all records for the number of applications and the acceptance level of offers made to prospective candidates.
Finally, there are unexpected benefits such as clients supporting your efforts with donations or participating in efforts. Measuring softer results such as the extent to which you can bond with clients is difficult. It may not be possible to compare the value of painting hospital rooms side by side with having another business lunch with a client, but it certainly creates a powerful bond.
As for the overall profitability of socially responsible practices, it is doubtful that a return on investment can be calculated with any reasonable degree of precision. However, there are benefits that accrue to a socially responsible firm and contribute significantly to enhancing its bottom line over the long term, including:
Many firms have been running similar programs for years. All it takes is willingness, commitment and a little enthusiasm.
Louise Davey is the chief operations officer with RSM Richter in Montreal. She can be reached at LDavey@rsmrichter.com
Technical editor: Stephen Rosenhek, CA, comanaging partner, RSM Richter in Montreal