Corporate social responsibility: when ‘why’ matters more than ‘how much’

Posted on Friday, April 15, 2016

Professor Donia
A recent paper by Professor Magda Donia of the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa suggests that companies have much to gain by engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR), but only if it is deemed genuine by their employees. This trend underscores that, from an organizational behaviour perspective, “motives matter.”

Supporting the theory that employees respond to their employer’s engagement towards CSR, Donia’s review of numerous research papers found that employees’ perceptions of their employers’ CSR efforts — whether they view them as symbolic (greenwashing) or substantive (genuine) — matter a lot. A 2015 survey of millennials by Deloitte found that when it comes to corporate social responsibility, 75% of millennials believe their company is too focused on its agenda and not enough on helping to improve society.  Many viewed their company’s only role as maximizing shareholder value.

Employee perceptions are shaped by a wide range of influences, such as competitors’ CSR initiatives, and most particularly, employees’ past and present work experiences.

For Donia, employees’ observations determine their attitudes and behaviours. “Think of the employee as an intuitive psychologist who observes their employer’s CSR behaviour, and then imputes certain motives. Because this sensemaking of observed behaviours is often more automatic than conscious, it is powerful. Managers should take note. As should, for that matter, anyone in the company with a say in creating and communication CSR programs,” says Donia.

This research suggests that CSR mainly motivated by a desire to help its target will generate greater employee commitment, identification and attachment to the organization, as well as job satisfaction. On the other hand, a self-serving CSR approach seen to be aimed at benefitting the organization may even lead to negative employee attitudes with regards to loyalty and organizational trust, and to deviance.

Donia’s follow-up empirical study, currently being reviewed by the journal Applied Psychology, provides further evidence of these findings. 

She stresses that it is important for organizations to have genuine intentions when pursuing corporate social responsibility. “If the employees evaluate their organization’s CSR efforts as self-serving, there will be costs. There will be cynicism and charges of green-washing,” concludes Donia.

Read the full paper.

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