I don't focus much on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in this blog. Now and then, though, issues in CSR find their way into my thinking about business ethics in general and the updating of a recent Weekly Ethics Thought on our over-reliance on 'tone at the top' got me thinking about a parallel issue in corporate social responsibility.
It seems I'm reading more and more complaints from consumers and employees alike, all feeling angry that corporate leaders are not 'allowing' CSR to flourish as it should. While I share their distress in large part, I find myself chafing at comments suggesting this lack of corporate support for CSR within organizations somehow prevents those complaining from fulfilling their personal vision of what CSR is all about. It seems to me that this attitude fundamentally means that they're bailing on their personal responsibility for promoting the values they espouse.
1. As for employees – as with all things ethical – a lack of 'tone at the top', however unfortunate, never prevents local action within an organization. There can be departmental initiatives and there can be individual initiatives and all can create tangible results . Obviously, neither of these ought to reduce one's efforts to promote better corporate citizenship on the part of the larger organization. My point is simply that we need to not use poor organization-wide policies or practices as an excuse to avoid making a difference where we can.
What can you do in your particular role and in your particular company? Beats me because we all work in different capacities and in different types of industries. BUT, my money says that you're fooling yourself if you think that you can't figure out how to make some kind of tangible difference with a little thought. Hopefully your efforts will light others up and have some degree of viral impact. However, it seems to me that the only real measure of success is whether or not you are persistently working at ways to bring your stated values – and your business' stated values – to life. Anything beyond that is simply a wonderful bonus.
2. As for consumers – vote with your activism and wallet. Will you make a difference as a single voice? Again, beats me. However, at worst you'll sleep better at night knowing that you've been true to your values and, in all likelihood, you will have actually been a part of a larger movement that will hopefully have a collective impact on the business or industry about whom you are concerned.
Is an appropriate 'tone at the top' hugely helpful in creating and sustaining appropriate CSR efforts? Obviously so. However, to use the lack of such tone as a reason not to work towards a smaller scale difference strikes me as being essentially similar to complaining about the government but refusing to vote.