When you talk to someone about corporate social responsibility, the first images that come to mind are the rainforest in Brazil and the associated protection needs, or the sweatshops in the Far East where small children make t-shirts for the West. In other words, things far from home; big multinational stuff, the sins of globalization the warriors of seattle fight by burning mcdonalds franchises. Society is a nice concept that, if a bit vague, a bit idealistic and a bit moral, fits well into corporate mission statements. Finally, imagine the alternative. Do you know a company that would admit to wanting to pollute the environment, destroy social relationships or run workplaces like concentration camps?
The problem with global social responsibility is that it distracts from what is happening next door or below. Companies that are “socially responsible”—according to the stereotypical standards of “no pollution, no child labor”—can actually take socially irresponsible actions that affect their own employees. Sumantra Ghoshal, a professor at the London Business School in the UK, describes the atmosphere in some companies as “summer Kolkata”, a suffocating environment. Such companies may have mission statements that endorse their commitment to social responsibility: they promise not to pollute rivers while ignoring the daily pollution of their workforce’s minds.
Let’s face it, Ghoshal is right. Some work environments are not nice! High levels of internal politics and personal warfare, disregard for the lives of employees who are just numbers on a spreadsheet, and irrational “emergency policies” (quick hire/quick fire) can lead to a “summer Kolkata” job, even if it does, the company swears it will never dump any chemical into the nearby river.
Social responsibility begins, like charity, at home: in the CEO’s office next door and downstairs in Human Resources and the labs. It’s about understanding that people spend a large part of their daily lives in organizations and that the company – whether it wants to recognize it or not – has a “social responsibility” towards them. A responsibility that includes the duty to create an environment that respects the individual, strengthens human existence and values the employee. What is good for the trees must also be good for the people.
Those who think it’s fluff are no different from those who think the chemical plant polluting the river is a necessary evil if the business is to meet its goals. Years ago such people got away with murder because the population largely ignored the issue or was silent or insensitive. Today such practices make headlines and backfire in ways it cannot afford. It is likely that summer jobs in Kolkata will make headlines in a similar way a few years from now, with similar consequences.
As a self-confessed green newbie who has yet to be reminded what a recycling box is for, it might seem odd that I use “green examples”. I’m not bringing you here as an expert, but to compare and expose the double standards of so-called social responsibility.
The circadian mind of a manager
One of the behaviors found in a less than socially responsible environment is a type of management schizophrenia. Outside the office, a manager can be a friendly, civilized, and perhaps church-going individual. In the office, he might morph into a carefree nine-to-five executive who honestly doesn’t give a damn about the “working environment” as long as “the numbers are hit” (and his bonus is secure). Perfectly reasonable people upon entering the office become very unreasonable managers, as if influenced by some kind of poisonous gas. Toxic Management takes over in the office. It’s as circadian as day and night.
A company’s obvious need for policies and procedures is a perfect excuse for toxic managers. You say, “Sorry, it’s not me, I have to do this, it’s a company policy” or “If it was up to me I would allow it, but I don’t make the rules“; or “I can’t allow you that, because then everyone expects the same thingAnd the employee is denied a small privilege that wouldn’t have made a difference to running the company but might have made all the difference to a working mom, like a little flexibility in her work hours.
Managers who hide behind company policies – “I don’t make the rules” or “I have to treat everyone equally” – often lie outright. In many cases, they have the power and ability to interpret company policies. They could grant an exception to the rule and give the individual a special concession because common sense says the rule wasn’t invented to make life difficult.
One of the toxic manager’s best defenses around Calcutta is to use “internal justice” as an all-season argument. “We need to see the equity aspects of this problem in the organization‘ a manager or HR manager will say, ‘We can’t give this to Smith or it will set a precedent for others“.
This type of argument assumes a lot of things, but what has always puzzled me is that it assumes the entire organization wants the same thing as Smith. In most cases this is not the case. For example, I did an MBA sponsored by my employer. As far as I remember there was no rigid criteria for who could do it. I knew a few colleagues like me who were sponsored. My boss didn’t have a long line of people in his office wanting to do an MBA! In fact, it was hard work that some of us put in on top of our normal workload. In another organization such an opportunity would not have been available because (here it comes): “In terms of internal justice, that would not be fair!”
Fairness, the greatest parapet
Fairness is a word that can be used with great semantic discretion. Many managers – and many HR departments – seem obsessed with defending fairness. And yet under that parapet they exhibit the greatest injustice of all, that of homogenization. Fairness, as unilaterally dictated and interpreted, may boost the manager’s moral ego but impress no one else. Pay gaps between employees, executive privileges, boards driven by personal gain are all unfair, but they are part of everyday life.
At this point you may be assured that I am determined to paint a bleak picture of business life. Let me be clear: I know that business life can be very rewarding and enlightening. I also appreciate that a lot of the work takes place in settings outside of Kolkata. But the cynical way corporations deal with so-called social responsibility should not be hushed up. The company is socially irresponsible, for all its environmental policies, when all it achieves is a good track record of clean rivers, but it’s a place not worth working for, as internal mental pollution merely replaces external pollution. Blame it on my lack of environmental education, but I can’t stand these environmentalists who take care of recycling their memos, dispose of the cans in special containers, and use the same hotel towel every day to save water while polluting people’s work environments, who work for them. Maybe we should paint offices or cubicles green for these managers.
The customer revolution took place in the 1980s with a proliferation of customer service departments. Today these are the baselines; they no longer raise admiring eyebrows. companies should have them. The quality movement focused on quality as the ultimate goal, today this is the starting point. In a few years you won’t see an ISO logo on letterhead or company cars.
Now, as the shareholder revolution begins, the actions of boards and management are increasingly being questioned. The next big revolution will be the employee revolution. At this point, toxic management will be exposed and companies that are internally socially irresponsible will make headlines. Those companies that have the courage to look at themselves in the mirror and identify socially irresponsible internal practices, and then have the courage to do something about them, will win the game.
You and I know companies full of “nice people.” However, in many cases it is like saying: “Individually, we are all basically good guys. Together we can be a bunch of arrogant people using the excuse of rules dictated from somewhere else to exert power and control“. If a work environment can produce and nurture managers who summer in Kolkata in the summer, who are otherwise “nice people”, that environment is toxic; you should avoid it if you can. And that’s the problem: the ” If you can”. After all, a few million people live in Kolkata, many cannot afford it anywhere else, some even like the summer there.
Social responsibility is not just a green issue or an ethical corporate governance approach that advocates not polluting rivers and not cutting down trees in Brazil. It has to start at home. So in the office next door, in the production plant or in the project team. However, none of this is taught in business schools.