Employer and employee engagement in CSR

After years of studying corporate social responsibility in Dutch companies, Dr Lonneke Roza and Prof. Lucas Meijs conclude that the challenges of implementing CSR, especially in terms of shared employer-employee engagement, have been oversimplified. Through their research and articles, Roza and Meijs highlight the nuances and dynamic complexities of CSR, thus helping practitioners – especially corporate leaders, managers and (activist) employees – to find effective ways for organisations to encourage and implement successful CSR initiatives.

Roza and Meijs first emphasise that when addressing CSR issues, corporate leaders must understand that people judge organisations both on their company’s identity as much as its behaviour. A company’s identity includes its business purpose and strategy, its espoused values and its philosophy – everything that makes the company unique. And that identity may not always include CSR values. In turn, CSR behaviour includes all the actual practices that a company or individuals within that company are partaken. “It takes these two aspects to have a thrilling CSR tango,” Roza explains. The action that a company leader might take to address the company’s CSR activities “will depend on whether the company finds social responsibility important. It's not about where they should go with CSR. It's where they want to be, what their ambitions are, what's in their identity.” Then, says Roza, “they have to change their behaviour accordingly.”

In some cases, companies can change their views on the importance of CSR. “In other companies,” explains Roza, “the organisation starts with CSR behaviour as they might be pressured by stakeholders, but through their CSR experiences they socialise with CSR and internalise the importance.”

Social responsibility

The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ is traditionally used to refer to social responsibility attitudes and actions at both the organisational and individual level. However, as Roza and Meijs note, employees may have different attitudes or act differently than the company as a whole. So, in addition to highlighting the distinction between social responsible identity and behaviour, Roza and Meijs underline the equally important and even less well-understood distinction between social responsibility at the organisational level and at the individual level – in short, whether employees are on the same CSR page as their employers. As a result, they coined the phrase employee social responsibility (ESR) to refer to employee-specific social responsibility values and behaviours, retaining corporate social responsibility to refer to top management or corporate-wide social responsibility values and behaviours.

Four categories

Roza and Meijs used high and low levels of identity and behaviour to develop four categories of engagement in social responsibility (SR) that applies to both employees and organisations:

  • Identity-based social responsibility: This category of engagement describes companies and employees alike that espouse social responsible values but don’t follow through with any CSR action (high SR identity, low SR behaviour).
  • Behaviour-based social responsibility: This category of engagement occurs in companies or with employees that don’t actively identify and proclaim their CSR values, but quietly behave in socially responsible ways (low SR identity, high SR behaviour).
  • Low social responsibility: This category of engagement is reflected in companies and individuals that don’t value social responsibility and act accordingly (low SR identity, low SR behaviour).
  • Entwined social responsibility: This category of engagement is reflected in companies and/or individuals that value social responsibility and follow through with social responsible behaviours (high SR identity, high SR behaviour).
“In the Netherlands, we are not really used to talking about our philanthropy, and especially about corporate philanthropy…”

The power of congruence

By matching CSR and ESR levels of engagement, corporate leaders, employees and even prospective employees can determine if there is a good fit – “congruence” in the terminology of the researchers – between an individual and an organisation. Meijs explains that the concept of congruence is non-judgmental. For example, if a company does not want to be engaged in socially responsible activities and an employee shares the same attitude, the SR values and behaviour of employer and employee are congruent.

For example, a CEO having trouble pushing his company to be more actively involved in socially responsible activities may realise that there is a disconnect between the company’s “entwined” level of engagement (high CSR identity, high CSR behaviour) and the employees’ identity-based level of engagement (they profess socially responsible values but these are not translated into action).

Likewise, “if you are looking for a job, you can also start with: who am I and what do I find important and what is my own behaviour?” Roza says. You then ask which company fits with that. This is important as a good fit between the organisation and the employee leads, for instance, to organisational commitment, employee engagement and less absenteeism. A misfit between the organisation and the employee could lead to resentment, disappointment and, in the end, higher turnover.

The most productive impact of understanding CSR congruence, however, is to guide both top managers and individual employees in improving the socially responsible attitudes and activities in their companies. “Let's assume just somewhere you're not congruent,” says Meijs. “You're the CEO of the company and you think the employees are not following what the company wants them to do.” Once the CEO recognises the incongruence, he or she may realise that employees need to be stimulated to participate in CSR activities. 

There are many ways to stimulate employees, including, says Roza, to offer a variety of opportunities, “because one person wants to do this and the other person wants to do that – one person is more inclined to work on sustainability while the other is more inclined to do something for charities.” Leadership support is also key to encouraging individual initiatives, say Roza and Meijs.

“…employees can positively influence their organisations in doing good, and vice versa…”

Although the majority of CSR activities are initiated at the organisational level, individual employees can make a major difference, according to Roza and Meijs. “If you're an employee and you find yourself in a place where you want to move the organisation up the CSR ladder in behaviour or in identity,” says Meijs, “find yourself some friends and start doing something– because in many cases companies are not going to fight about small CSR initiatives. For example, if you want to start recycling within your company, you should probably just do it.”

The bottom line, say Roza and Meijs, is that awareness of employer-employee congruence can encourage top-down or bottom-up initiatives that improve the CSR pattern of a company. “I really find it interesting,” says Roza, “how employees can positively influence their organisations in doing good, and vice versa, and I think that's also the whole underlying notion of this research.”

This article draws its inspiration from the paper Congruence in Corporate Social Responsibility: Connecting the Identity and Behaviour of Employers and Employees, written by Haski-Leventhal, D., Roza, L. & Meijs, L.C.P.M, and published in the Journal of Business Ethics (2017) 143: 35.

This article was published in RSM Discovery Magazine 35.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Ivo Martijn, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at martijn@rsm.nl.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China. www.rsm.nl

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