Corporate Social Responsibility Promotes Employee Engagement

By Mark Swartz
Canadian Workplace Specialist

There’s a debate raging over whether corporate citizenship – initiatives that are socially responsible or environmentally friendly – helps make your employees more loyal and productive.

Usually it’s the word of hard core do-gooders against those who champion profit-at-any-cost. But a new, large scale Canadian study indicates that corporate social responsibility can improve your bottom line, in part by giving your most engaged employees a reason to stay and work harder for you.

Key Findings of The Employee Engagement Study

Results of the annual 50 Best Employers In Canada survey, produced by Hewitt Associates, Canada (part of the worldwide HR outsourcing and HR consulting firm) are published in conjunction with The Globe And Mail’s Report On Business.

2009 marks the first time that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been included in this study, now in its 10th year. CSR was rated as a factor affecting employee engagement. According to Hewitt, the higher the overall level of engagement, the more your staff will:

• Consistently say positive things about your organization
• Intend to stay with your organization
• Strive to achieve above and beyond what is expected in their daily role

Serving as research partner for the study’s Corporate Social Responsibility component is Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, a “non-profit, member-led organization that mobilizes Canadian companies to make powerful business decisions that improve performance and contribute to a better world.”

Among the survey’s key findings? As explained to me by Neil Crawford, Hewitt’s leader of the study, employees in general value their employer’s CSR efforts – to the extent that if the employer were to scale back on its social responsibility or environmental initiatives, it could negatively impact employee motivation and possibly even retention.

Lessons From Real Life

Are you an outdoor enthusiast? Then maybe you’ve shopped at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), “Canada's leading supplier of quality outdoor gear, clothing and camping equipment.”
Regardless if you’ve climbed Mt. Everest or get winded lifting the channel changer, I’d like to introduce you the CEO of MEC, David Labistour – a most thoughtful senior executive overseeing more than 1,400 employees.

We’ll hear momentarily from David regarding CSR as an employee engager, but first consider some of the things MEC is doing to better the world while boosting profits:

• Ethical sourcing: We work to improve the human condition in factories.
• Product sustainability: We are working to reduce our ecological footprint on the planet.
• 1% For The Planet: We donate 1% of all sales to support Canadian environmental causes.
• Diversity: We created a Diversity Policy to formally spell out our continuing commitment to an open workplace for all people, based on fair and equitable treatment.

And now some brief highlights of the conversation I had with David from MEC’s head office in Vancouver, British Columbia…

Swartz: How do MEC’s Corporate Social Responsibility efforts help attract and retain the right kinds of employees?

Labistour: It is important to understand that our brand and products appeal to those who are actively involved in outdoor pursuits. As a result, applicants to jobs at MEC tend to be people who appreciate nature. Based on this, many of our external Corporate Social Responsibility efforts focus on maintaining or improving the environment. By catering to the needs of our applicants and employees in these ways, we become an employer of choice and they’re proud to be associated with our company.

Swartz: Are external Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives your primary thrust?

Labistour: Actually our main focus is to embed social and environmental responsibility directly into our line functions and processes internally. For example, ethical sourcing resides within our production and purchasing teams. Also we try to accommodate the healthy lifestyles of our employees by having equipment at each of our stores that staff can sign out for free, we take them on invigorating excursions, give some flexibility on work hours so they can engage in their outdoor activities, and a surprisingly high percentage of our staff ride to work.

Swartz: How do you as CEO set the tone for social responsibility internally?

Labistour: We encourage honesty and transparency in the ways we deal with our customers, suppliers and employees. It falls upon me to demonstrate that I’m just as human as any other staff member. Admitting mistakes is a powerful way to practice transparency, such as when we had to rescind our customer polyester recycling program due to labelling issues on used garments. We’d started with great intentions, but when the program proved impractical, we came out right away and announced the changes.

Swartz: What advice would you give to other employers regarding Corporate Social Responsibility and staff engagement?

Labistour: Above all be authentic. Corporate Social Responsibility isn’t something you tack on to look pretty. Start inside from the outset. Begin by finding out where your organization’s greatest impacts are, from both a positive and negative standpoint, then allot resources to specific, measurable programs that leverage your existing strengths. Keep your employees informed and recruit them to participate fully. They’ll become your greatest allies and ultimately everyone gains.