What does it mean for a company to do social good? The current actions organizations take include donating to philanthropic endeavors, allowing employees to use time off for community volunteer work, and using lobbying or public relations to champion environmental causes. There’s nothing wrong with any of these actions, but are they sufficient for the time we live in? Are there more significant challenges businesses need to face? What matters these days, and why?
In the early 1900s, a widely-held assumption was that corporations existed primarily to make money for shareholders. This belief was intermittently challenged over the decades that followed, and plenty of writing exists about the downside of putting profit before people. Criticisms have often been levied against businesses that focus too much on their economic interests and not enough on their effects on employees, local communities and the environment.
Fast-forward to present times, and thinking has evolved to acknowledge that a company can be both a profit-generator and a socially responsible entity. It’s now generally agreed that maximizing profits is an insufficient achievement to offset harm to the environment, employee well-being and the common good. Companies are accountable to employees, shareholders, their communities and society at large. Corporate citizenship is reborn.
And it’s good business. Consumers want to buy from businesses that do good in the world, and contributing to worthwhile causes increases the level of respect customers feel for leaders and companies. Employees want to work for organizations that offer not just interesting work but meaningful, purposeful work. Many companies have met the challenge of becoming excellent corporate citizens, but not all.
Volkswagen’s emissions scandal harmed the global environment. Facebook’s ongoing privacy scandals degrade the public trust. Google’s inability to consider the unintended consequences of its business model has led to algorithms’ becoming infected with human biases that compromise fair decision-making. The corporate entities that took immoral and illegal actions and brought about the mortgage crisis and subsequent 2008 recession have yet to be held accountable. And growing income inequality, manifested in the discrepancy between CEO pay and the salary of the average worker, is repugnant. I could say more, but you get the idea.
Companies are accountable to shareholders and humankind. Investors are arguably cared for, but humankind, not so much. Spend time reflecting on all the marvelous results good companies have produced through meaningful corporate citizenship efforts, and it’s easy to feel pleased. But consider the major impediments that hold companies and society back, and you’ll likely be sobered by the enormity of the challenges that remain. Racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of structural inequality still exist. We’ve made some progress. Much more is needed.
For companies to do social good in 2019 and beyond, they must supplement their current efforts with results-oriented actions that develop diverse, inclusive, equitable workplaces. Then, in turn, society will thrive, and humankind will be better off.
Studies show that having a diverse workforce that feels a sense of belonging improves corporate profitability, but attaining these outcomes is difficult. Courage is required to lead thoughtful, measurable action. Hope is not a business strategy, and neither is avoidance.
Here’s the prescription for corporate social good in 2019 and beyond:
Set Yourself and the Company up for Success
Acknowledge that tackling social justice through corporate citizenship brings healthy disruption. (Thankfully, disruption is in vogue!) Implement behavioral interventions to help everyone in your organization surface hidden bias and replace judgment with cultural curiosity. If needed, hire or appoint a chief equity, inclusion and diversity officer to lead these efforts.
Shift Your Thinking
A change in the way we think often leads to a change in the way we act. Stop assuming that your norms and beliefs should be everyone’s norms and beliefs. Instead, understand that we are all deeply influenced by a structural institution that (in unjust and harmful ways) elevates some people while holding others down.
Abandon meritocracy as a myth, since it holds companies back from greater success. Act with mindful intention to elevate people who are not like you.
Reengineer HR Systems
Innovate new processes for recruitment, hiring, engagement and performance management:
- Practice holistic hiring. Look beyond knowledge, skills and abilities to identify the key values someone needs for a job.
- Abandon “not a fit” as a reason for not hiring, recognizing that this expression typically reflects hidden bias. Require clear articulation of specific reasons.
- Remember that the so-called “bar” and who clears it says more about a company and its hiring practices than about the candidates applying for a given role.
- Take action to prevent interviewer bias. Use virtual and augmented reality to help employees understand how it feels to be “different.”
- Move performance management systems from forced distribution rankings toward a performance ecosystem that’s kept in balance by a genuine diversity of talent.
Learn to Navigate Differences Among People
Remember that what happens outside work often has a direct effect on what happens inside work. Painful issues involving social justice are regularly in the news, and silence among leaders conveys lack of caring to employees.
- Assess organizational readiness for bold, meaningful conversations.
- Work to create an environment of psychological safety..
- Educate yourself and others on intercultural conflict styles.
- Plan to have several conversations that build on one another, not a one-time event.
Measure (and Share) Results
Produce aspirational goals that demonstrate commitment to change. Then, track and share metrics for the pipeline; talent development; senior-level commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; and supplier diversity.
In an increasingly global workforce, with dramatic demographic changes already underway, separating social good from organizational purpose is a nonstarter. Disrupting the status quo is not easy, but the time has come for leaders to up their game and make the changes required to diversify their workforces and create companies where everyone belongs and is uniquely valued.
The days when corporations were economically focused and governments were politically concentrated are gone. Now, we are all woven together in an intricate tapestry that — if we bravely rise to the challenge — will drive a healthy future for all.