Further Differentiation of CSR and Ethics

A pet peeve of mine is the way in which corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethics are talked about as if they are one and the same. It’s an understandable confusion, certainly. However, it helps to remember that CSR typically has to do with initiatives endorsed at an organizational level and even highly socially responsible companies can have individuals, departments, or boards with extremely flawed ethics. No matter how badly those lousy ethics might taint the reputation of the company, they don’t necessarily mean that the company’s CSR efforts are phony or ill-conceived.

An ace example from recent events? Business Ethics magazine named Hewlett-Packard number two on its annual list of the best corporate citizens. In fact, H-P has been on the list for the last seven years. Does that make Business Ethics’ survey a sham? I certainly don’t think so. No matter how horrific the ethics of Patricia Dunn and some of H-P’s board may turn out to have been, the company has done well overall in serving both its employees and the public and they deserve to be recognized for that. Lest it need to be said, that is in no way intended to be a covert excusing of Dunn and Company’s behavior. It is simply a reminder that even really good companies can have really flawed people and policies.

My central message here? I guess there are two. The first is simply a reminder that, as intertwined as they can sometimes be, CSR and corporate ethics are not one and the same. The second point is that, when thumbing our noses at those who have transgressed, let’s not assume that they represent everything – or perhaps even much at all – about their company as a whole. The trick is to reasonably discern to which degree, if any, flaws at the top have become springboards for the creation or tolerance of inappropriate behavior elsewhere in the organization. Without careful evaluation, including outside experts as well as internal audits, that can be far more easily said than done.

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