When human beings sense danger, their survival instincts kick in. As businesses are collections of human beings, it makes sense that their survival instincts are projected upon the organisations they work for. While these instincts may be natural, they are certainly not preferable. Executives must maintain their commitment to corporate social responsibility, even when every bone in their body is telling them to take the easy route.
It is easy to be a good person when things are going well for you.
Think about the times in your life where you have considered donating money to a charity. The decision to donate feels a lot safer as you grow older, secure in the knowledge that you have a healthy pay cheque to fall back on no matter how much money you commit. If you are someone who does not know whether they will be able to afford their next electricity bill, the decision to donate is a lot more complicated.
These same dilemmas apply to organisations as much as they do individuals. In the last few decades, our organisations have prospered to a degree that we have never seen before. Globalisation and trade liberalisation has created new opportunities that we have duly capitalised on. It is against this backdrop of unprecedented wealth that the concept of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ has grown.
At the crux of Corporate Social Responsibility is sustainability. It reflects an organisation’s commitment that their work has a positive impact on social, economic and environmental factors. Naturally, the broader context of economic growth has made the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility more attractive, in that, it is easier for an organisation to commit to non-profit related ends when it is assured of its own prosperity.
But what happens when the economic growth dries up?
That is the issue organisations are facing right now. The Australian economy was already stuttering in the months before the pandemic began but this shut down has brought it to a grinding halt. Many organisations have had to close their doors, lay off workers and implement revised plans for the future. The objective, generally, has shifted towards survival.
Bill Schaninger, Bruce Simpson, Han Zhang and Chris Zhu, in an article for McKinsey, put the question perfectly: “What should a company’s purpose be when the purpose of so many, right now, is survival?” Coronavirus and the difficult times it has brought about has forced executives to introspectively question what defines their company’s purpose. Sacrifice, in the sense of Corporate Social Responsibility, has become a lot more difficult because we are not living in as prosperous times as we once were.
For executives, the path forward is a difficult one. They face pressure from those above them to reign in spending and reduce losses. In doing so, however, they may undermine their social and environmental commitments, which are essential to giving an organisation a reason for being.
Something to remember is this: It is in times of war and crisis that great leaders truly emerge. They are forged in fire. Ultimately, these leaders are memorable because they embody something greater than ‘win at all costs;’ their actions are undergirded by principles that their followers can unite behind. Thus, an executive cannot abandon his or her Corporate Social Responsibility. Great leaders find a way of maintaining their mantras and principles and balancing them against competing considerations, like survival.
The McKinsey article cited above recommends that executives “test [their] decisions against [their organisation’s] purpose.” By this, it means that you use your organisation’s values, particularly its Corporate Social Responsibility, to evaluate the decisions you make during the pandemic to ensure you are not completely violating your underlying principles. This process will keep you tethered to the notions that define your organisation and imbue it with meaning. If you explicitly outline the trade-off and determine whether it is justified before you make the decision, you are less likely to do lasting damage to your organisation’s perception as a responsible corporate actor.
Our future is far from certain. Everything is up in the air. But that does not justify your organisation losing track of its reason for being. Obviously, hard decisions will have to be made that involving trading–off certain values for the greater good. The most important thing, however, is not to lose track of what those values are. Corporate Social Responsibility is not something you can opt-in and out of when it suits you. We have recognised our organisation’s capacity to forge a better world and it would be wrong of us to totally abandon those ideas.
Doing the right thing is certainly harder than it used to be. But that is what makes a sacrifice so noble. Corporate Social Responsibility must remain in our minds during these changing times, even if it means temporarily moving it to the periphery.