[OPINION] When is a company's CSR program authentic or just window dressing?
During this pandemic, we don't just hear news of businesses getting precarious. We also hear news of corporations responding eagerly and automatically to the needs of their employees, customers, community, and the government. Today, the CEO rocks if she responds. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not just a buzzword; it is the magic word. (READ: LIST: Aid from Philippine companies during coronavirus pandemic)
Alan Murray, the president and CEO of Fortune Magazine, asked the million-dollar philosophical question: "Is this just a temporary response to the coronavirus crisis, or part of a fundamental rethinking of the company’s role in society? Is it a brief grab for feel-good PR, or a reflection of larger corporate purpose?" My student in an MBA class had a closely-related question: "How will we know if a company's CSR program is authentic or just sugarcoating and window dressing?"
In the interest of space, let me just suggest 3 flexible indicators of an authentic CSR intervention.
First, does social conscience run in the corporate bloodstream? Or just like the COVID-19 patient, is the corporation just the unwilling victim of a contagious trend? While other companies participate actively, great-pretender companies have no other choice but to appear to be socially responsible – or else, they might be left behind. (READ: [OPINION] Business unusual: When the business community responds to a virus)
Second, does the company desperately embrace the limelight? Does it spend more on the promotion of the donation than on the donation itself? Does it essentially categorize its CSR program as a marketing strategy? Is brand recall the end-all and be-all? Or is the company willing to work in the shadows when circumstances demand it?
Third, does the effort embrace wholeheartedly the renewed purpose of the corporation? Just some months ago, the influential Business Round Table, an organization of almost 200 CEO's of top corporations in the United States, admitted (finally!) that the purpose of the corporation is not maximization of shareholder interest but the welfare of all stakeholders. (READ: Business for good in the time of COVID-19)
Interestingly, our own corporate governance code revised and released in 2016 by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) predates the BRT's declaration when it says that the purpose of corporate governance is "to maximize the organization’s long-term success, creating sustainable value for its shareholders, stakeholders, and the nation."
Attentive readers may see that these loose indicators do not really resolve satisfactorily the questions above. In the era of fake news, altruistic acts can also be faked, and purpose-washing is as easy as greenwashing.
One simple and seemingly sensible answer to the questions raised by Murray and my student is not to answer at all. Practical thinkers would say that this is not the important question to ask in the thick of a pandemic. As long as the corporation responds, who cares whether its intervention is altruistic or corporacentric? What is vital is the act of helping and not the intention behind helping. What is erroneous is to get stuck in the intention without doing any action.
I don't know. Hot soup offered by an anonymous stranger probably still tastes better than a bag of rice and sardines with the face and name of a politician. And I still hope that even if one is truly hungry, she would still bother to know and remember with a vengeance (come election time) the difference between the compassionate giving of a stranger and the superficial doling out of a politician. As reported by Neil Wagner of The Atlantic (March 17, 2012), a study found out that "food tastes better, pain hurts less, and pleasure is more pleasant when they come with good intentions behind them."
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant goes an extra step by saying that a right action is not necessarily a morally good action. For example, donating in this time of crisis is right. But this act is not necessarily good if it does not arise from the good will of the donor. In fact, Kant implies that even if your act of helping leads to a major disaster, for as long as it emanates from good will, then the said act does not lose its luster.
The whole point is that we demand from corporate decision-makers not only the right action. We also expect them to do it out of genuine good will. We are not beggars who cannot be choosers. We are legitimizers of the corporation's continuing existence and flourishing. – Rappler.com
Franz Giuseppe Cortez is a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at the University of Santo Tomas. You may reach him at email@example.com.