The big issues business cannot afford to ignore

It wasn’t so very long ago that many employers thought being a good corporate citizen meant persuading a few middle managers to paint the local community youth centre. The employees would learn a bit, the community would be slightly better off and local customers might see the firm in a good light.

Just how far UK companies have come was demonstrated by last week’s annual conference of the Institute of Directors. With its membership base of mostly small and medium businesses, the IoD is known for fighting red tape and employee-friendly regulations. The fact the institute dedicated this year’s conference to the topic of globalisation shows that the business community is finally realising that corporate social responsibility is as much about competitiveness as it is about child labour or global warming.

It was a brave decision. There were protesters outside the Albert Hall as the conference began and the inclusion of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a speaker attracted flack from sections of the press.

However, the IoD should be applauded for giving such issues a platform. The message from IoD director general, George Cox, and outgoing IoD president Lord Young of Graffham, was at times radical.

Lord Young proposed it should be a criminal offence for companies to conceal information about directors’ pay. And Cox acknowledged that market forces alone could not be the sole driver for tackling huge international problems in which multinational companies play a major role.

Malcolm Brinded, planning director of Shell International, called on companies to address corporate social responsibility in a spirit of enlightened self-interest.

And for anyone in HR who thinks they can leave such issues to the board, Brinded pointed out that there are dividends, as well as threats, for HR in terms of recruitment and retention, innovation and anticipating new markets. HR ignores the big issues at its peril.

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