Thinking Critically about Social Responsibility

I recently participated in a conference on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where I gave a short presentation on the role of critical thinking in leading a company toward better social performance. Basically, I argued that in order to motivate employees to embrace some version of CSR — whatever you take that to mean — you need need to think critically about the way your CSR activities dovetail with the goals of your organization, and with the values and commitments that are already motivating your employees.

Interestingly, I received some push-back, in the form of a question from the audience, from someone who suggested that what CSR efforts really need is passion and a sense of purpose. What’s really needed, this person said, is not critical thinking at all. Indeed, for purposes of pushing the CSR agenda forward, critical thinking is actually a bad idea.

As someone who teaches critical thinking for a living, I was naturally somewhat taken aback.

This person had a point, of course: getting something done — whether it’s opening a new division or launching a new product or strengthening your CSR profile — takes passion. It takes commitment. And sometimes critical thinking, which involves asking questions, could seem like a stumbling block. Now isn’t always the right moment for asking annoying questions and expressing doubt.

But I thought I would take the time to lay out, here, the role that critical thinking can play — indeed, must play — in launching CSR activities and bringing them to fruition.

To begin, what is critical thinking anyway? Most of us have a sense of what it is, and most people are generally in favour of it, in most contexts, but what is it? The textbook definition is that critical thinking is the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs or statements by rational standards. In other words, it’s about figuring out what to believe, and doing so by determining what beliefs are backed by good reasons. It means asking questions like, “Is that really true?” “How do I know that?” “How certain am I?” and “What assumptions am I making?”

So, how in particular does this apply to CSR?

First of all, a company needs to think critically in order to decide what its CSR objectives are. It doesn’t make sense for a company to dive into CSR by tackling any and every project that anyone has ever associated with that concept.

So, think critically. Will you focus on minimizing (or off-setting) the environmental impact of your operations? Will you incentivize employees to volunteer for charities? Will you build a hospital in a remote village? Will philanthropy be part of your CSR portfolio? Passion is important, but so is directing your passion. Setting objectives requires asking hard questions. It requires, in short, critical thinking. (For a more detailed take on how to think critically about your company’s CSR agenda, see Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s article, “Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility”).

Second, a successful CSR program requires that a company think critically about methods. The need for businesses to think critically about methods is quite literally why universities have business schools. Managing is not easy. Regardless of the issue at hand, managing requires developing a strategy that makes good use of the materials at hand in order to reach your objectives.

So once you’ve decided that, for example, that you want one chunk of your CSR program to focus on literacy, then what? Do you leverage your highly-educated workforce by sending your employees out to volunteer at an adult literacy clinic? (And how do you motivate them? Simply offer them the chance to do it on company time? Offer bonuses? What else?) Do you partner with other like-minded companies to raise awareness? Do you build pro-literacy messages into your own product-oriented advertising? Or do you merely donate money to the first literacy-oriented charity you find? Is there evidence that that will have an impact? The most impact?

Finally — and this was the part I focused on in my presentation — think about engagement. It should go without saying that a successful CSR program requires the engagement of your employees. After all, a profit-oriented company that suddenly decides that it takes its social responsibilities seriously may well find itself facing a skeptical, or otherwise hesitant, workforce. If you say “we put community first,” but employees secretly believe that the unwritten rule is “profit above all,” they’re going to find all sorts of ways, passive or active, to undermine your CSR activities.

So you need to think critically about what your own argument in favour of CSR is. If you can’t express why you believe in CSR (again, whatever you take that to mean) then you’re not going to be able to convince others that they should believe in it. In other words, can you actually explain, in a credible way, what’s motivating the company (or you, the boss) to take CSR seriously? Is it that you think some version of CSR dovetails so well with the company’s mission? Or is it because you see a win-win outcome that links the good of the community to the company’s own strategic needs (e.g., the need to foster a healthy workforce)? Explain the rationale, in order to convince employees that the move is an authentic one.

A further element of critical-thinking-for-engagement is to help employees see that active support for your CSR program makes sense given what they already value and believe in, and that it’s OK for them to bring those values — their generosity, their sense of community, their passion for the environment — to work with them. In other words, give your employees a pro-CSR argument that is grounded in their own values and beliefs. Doing so requires thinking critically about the various arguments in favour of social responsibility, understanding their structure, and deciding which ones both work logically and are rooted in starting points your employees can accept.

That, in short, is the role that critical thinking must play in any company’s attempt to take corporate social responsibility seriously. This obviously isn’t anything remotely like a full and complete recipe for carrying out a CSR agenda. There are lots of people who can give you better advice about that than I can. But it’s worth giving due credit to the role that critical thinking needs to play. Because while a successful CSR program does need passion, passion that is not guided by critical thinking might well prove fruitless, or worse.

Socrates taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. One tiny implication of that is that the unexamined CSR initiative is not worth initiating.

2 comments so far

  1. Ashlee Thomas on

    Dr. MacDonald,

    I think Corporate Social Responsibility is something that is extremely important, but is also often overlooked. I do believe that in order for CSR to be successful passion and a sense of purpose are needed. In order for the employees to want to participate they must have passion. As Richard Johannesen (2008) states “It is choice making that is voluntary, free from physical or mental coercion.” But I agree with you that for it to be most successful you have to use critical thinking. Even if someone has passion for the project it doesn’t mean everyone will. I loved your point that with critical thinking you think critically about why CSR is important, then you can persuade others to believe this also. Without thinking about the objectives you are hoping to accomplish, the project will never get accomplished. I really enjoyed reading this, and agree with everything you pointed out.

    Ashlee Thomas
    Drury University

  2. Naomi M on

    Hi Chris,
    In relation to your blog titled, ‘Thinking Critically About Social Responsibility’, I agree with you when you say that ‘a company needs to think critically in order to decide what it’s CSR objectives are’. The company must ask those tough questions to determine what reasons they want to establish a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) in their company. The managers in these positions must be clear and strategically plan in order to successfully develop a CSR programme. For example, what are their ethical responsibilities? To be ethically responsible, you must do what’s right and avoid harm. For instance a well known clothing company has developed a code of conduct designed to ensure that the company’s workers, anywhere in the world are safe and treated with dignity and respect. Consumers like to spend money where they know it’s going to a company that expresses these values.

    I also agree with the comment you made about ‘how the manager should argue in favour of CSR and if they can’t express why they believe in CSR, then they won’t convince others that they should believe in it also’. You must be totally committed to the project and have enthusiasm, passion and interest to be able to convince others to buy into it. Applying some virtues like pride, commitment, confidence and determination will entice others to be interested in the project. Incorporating the right CSR could impact on your brand, reputation, being a sought after employer, boost the morale of your employees, etc. ‘Social responsibility forces people to be responsible for their own actions and makes it difficult for them to “exploit” other people for either selfish or unselfish purposes. They can do good – but only at their own expense’. (Friedman M.)

    Most businesses will agree that CSR is not their first priority in business. The primary function of a business is the producer of goods or services that consumers want or need. This is their economic responsibility. Milton Friedman argues that management’s sole responsibility is to maximise profits for the shareholders. But shareholders are not the only ones affected by your business, shareholders are one stakeholder among many, other stakeholders include everyone from the employees, suppliers, customers, government agencies and the community. Utilitarian’s would consider incorporating a CSR programme will produce the maximum good for many rather than focussing on maximising profits to keep their shareholders happy. Their legal responsibilities will include carrying out their work in accordance with the law and government regulations.

    An example will be if the local farmer asked the regional council for permission to dump waste in the nearby creek, and they were granted permission, then I would not consider this to be socially responsible, as it can cause some health and environmental damage. However, Freidman would say that they have done nothing wrong because along with maximising their profits, they have informed the appropriate authorities of their actions and are not hiding anything. In my view this farmer is acting unethically, he has no consideration for the environment or residents that live near the stream, the contaminated water may come into contact with their water supply.

    Your suggestion regarding thinking critically about methods in relation to managers, most organisations have operations managers and these managers hold a great deal of trust to an organisation. It’s this trust that the shareholders give them to ensure that they don’t abuse the everyday expense accounts where they have authority over. These managers make decisions with the resources and materials of the organisation. Trust filters down to the consumer as well, ie: some consumers will support companies that make products that are sensitive to our natural environment, or support companies that treat their employees with respect and dignity, or companies that support their communities.

    What are their philanthropic responsibilities? Do they engage in activities that promote human welfare or goodwill? Do they donate time and money to various charities? Is being philanthropic considered a social responsibility of the company? I have the view of if you have the means, then yes it is considered your social responsibility, you’re in a position to do good for those in need, and that has many benefits for your company. Others may view it as voluntary and it’s not unethical if you fail to be philanthropic.

    One example is what our local petrol station owner does for the small community that I live in. He posts on facebook, that he will surprise a ‘customer’ by filling up their vehicle for free, all you have to do is purchase petrol on the day he is running this competition. He would have applied critical thinking to come up with this strategy, he would have asked questions like, how can we best support the community? Or what can we do to attract more customers? Later in the day, he will post a photo of the customer receiving their free petrol on facebook and it’s great to see some of the elderly people getting their car filled. He is giving something back to the community.

    In conclusion, there is much we can learn about thinking critically about social responsibility. The benefits of establishing a CSR outweigh any costs that it will create. The main point I will reiterate is to strategically plan, ask those questions, like the example from the petrol station owner, show leadership qualities, and direct the company into a well respected CSR programme. In my view incorporating a CSR programme will only add to the success of your company.

    References:
    The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand (2015) Module 4. Role of Business in Society 71203 Business Ethics. Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Author.

    Friedman, M. The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. The New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970. Copyright @ 1970 by The New York Times Company

    Trevino, L. K, & Nelson K. A, Managing Business Ethics, Straight Talk About How To Do It Right. Third Edition. Copyright (2004) by John Wiley and Sons.


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