Training departments have a key role to play in their organisations' corporate social responsibility initiatives. It's a win-win.
With corporate social responsibility (CSR) now government-monitored – it comes under the 2006 Companies Act, as well as the Pensions Act Amendment – it's clear that many companies have yet to harness this broad topic.
For anyone still at the head-scratching stage, CSR is the management of a company's positive impact on society and/or the environment, says Jo Appleby, a business development executive at Impact International, a company that runs programmes in sustainable enterprise.
"It can cover a multitude of things – from company operations through to the products and services it supplies," she says. "This also extends to how a business interacts with its key stakeholders – ie, the supply chain, customers and, most importantly, employees."
According to an online survey conducted by the Economic Intelligence Unit on behalf of The Economist magazine (conducted between November-December 2007), 68.9% of the 1,122 respondents – 42% of which were based in Europe – said CSR is now a bigger priority for their business than three years ago, with 25.7% ranking it a 'very high priority'.
The top three effects of implementing CSR-related policies were identified as: having a better brand and reputation (52.9%) making decisions that are better for the business in the long term (42.4%) and being more attractive to potential and existing employees (37.5%).
The obvious benefits of being an organisation that people want to work for – with a better brand and reputation – make CSR a desirable achievement, although the confusion that surrounds it leaves many companies with a non-cohesive programme.
Lesley Muir, who lectures on CSR at the London School of Economics and runs a PR firm, says businesses should divide it into three elements: strategic – enlightened self-interest, which is win-win on both sides ethical – where you make sure the company abides by employment regulations and altruistic – activities such as painting the local school.
According to Muir, some people argue against the altruistic approach because it doesn't add value to the firm, but she claims that strategic goals should underpin all three.
"When you're thinking about CSR, you have to think about the role of business and its ultimate goal – which is making money. Therefore, rather than simply painting a local school, a more strategic approach would be to introduce something like a mentoring programme for school drop-outs instead. This might be a motivating experience for employees. It might give them valuable skills – such as motivational and leadership qualities – and it might attract employees or have PR value. Ultimately, any activity should be bringing something back into the business."
While many of the larger multinationals will have a dedicated CSR department, businesses with smaller budgets tend to channel their CSR through the learning and development and HR function.
According to Philip Roark, managing director of people specialist Insala, CSR has a natural home in the people-focused areas of a business because, while the Companies Act is quite general, there is a requirement for organisations to report on the people in their organisation. "CSR is quite ambiguous," he admits. "But a lot of it now is about being strategic – looking at what it means to a company. If you put a programme in place that includes the L&D function, you're halfway there."
Appleby agrees that CSR has a natural place in L&D. "If a company really wants to be a sustainable enterprise, it has to embed CSR within the organisation, making it part of the mainstream business. The training department is at the heart of that - that's its remit," she says.
This year, the Impact annual conference, which takes place from 17-18 June, will focus on Leadership for Sustainable Enterprise.
Roark also believes that CSR provides HR with an opportunity to step up and participate, rather than just talk about being at the table. "When it comes to CSR, there are no real firm standards in place," he explains. "So there's a very good opportunity for HR to co-operate with CSR advocates within the business.
"At Insala, we suggest they install CSR programmes against certain targets – such as retention, employment activity and performance management. The resulting metrics could then be used – putting HR on the financial report in a strategic and very visible way."
Case study: Sainsbury's
UK food retailer Sainsbury's commissioned training company Impact to develop a graduate community action learning programme.
The programme, which forms part of the retailer's 'Different Values' Corporate Responsibility Principles, is designed to develop the personal leadership skills of Sainsbury's graduate recruits through a community-based project to provide sustained behavioural change.
The programme involves Sainsbury's graduates working with a primary school in London's Newham borough. Impact designed the community-based learning project, which includes providing a healthy eating allotment for the school. This not only enabled the graduates to develop their leadership skills, but also advanced the retailer's core values and promoted ideas of sustainability and environmental awareness within the local community.
Joanne McGuire, development consultant, graduate development at Sainsbury's, says: "The graduate programme reflects the direction we are moving in as a business - it fully demonstrates our commitment to communities, young people, food and education. It also helps our graduates feel they are an important part of the company and enables them to make the transition between university and their working lives."