How Does Your Role Influence Your CSR Perspective?

February 10, 2023 | What's Hot | 6 min read

Sometimes I think about how people learn to do the right thing. Is it innate? Do we learn it from family or friends? School? Work? Our chosen occupation?

For me, it’s been a combination of these factors. But I can pinpoint with some precision where I began to fully recognize the value of corporate citizenship and expect the company I work for to make a positive impact on society. That was at United Parcel Service (UPS).

I spent the first ten years of my career at UPS, holding various leadership assignments in sales and operations. While I was there, I learned that UPS does a lot of philanthropic work. Most recently, the company donated $2 million to the United Way’s COVID-19 relief effort.

From the website:

Together, UPS and United Way have been building stronger communities across the country since 1982. Every day, UPSers are volunteering, donating, and speaking up to make their communities better places to live and raise families.

UPS was the first global corporate partner to raise $1 billion in contributions to United Way . . . our partnership helped almost 80,000 children get literacy support, more than 34,000 youth with job skills training, and connected some 1,200 veterans with jobs. At the same time, UPS partners with United Way across the country to put an end to human trafficking, training their drivers and community agencies to spot the signs and donating to that cause.

When you know better, you do better. And what I liked about UPS was that it encouraged employees to do better every day. That idea has become foundational to my approach to corporate citizenship today.

As human beings we have a responsibility to each other – and to ourselves – to do the right thing. To help where we can, and to make an impact from the platform on which we stand – whether that be the company at which we work, a community group, or our own conscience.

I’m heartened to see that companies around the world are increasingly philanthropic these days.

To name a few examples, Bosch announced that 400 of its global locations are now climate neutral. Canvas shoe brand, TOMS, donates one-third of its profits to grassroots campaigns. And Frito Lay created a solar power plant to reduce its manufacturer’s dependance on coal-powered electricity – ultimately reducing its carbon footprint.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) — or the way organizations behave ethically, give back, and safeguard the health and welfare of people and planet — is a trend that’s here to stay. And while CSR is typically led by executive leadership or human resources, it resonates deeply with employees as well.

The Skillsoft team recently surveyed more than 1,000 people across various industries, geographies, and job roles, to learn how they believe the organizations they work for are impacting society with their CSR efforts, big and small.

While our CSR at Work report focused on high-level trends, we saw an opportunity to dive deeper. We wondered: How does your role at work influence your perspective on CSR? Here’s what we found.

C-suiters are overly optimistic about CSR maturity

When polled about the maturity of their organizations’ CSR program, employees at different levels had very different opinions. The c-suite is most likely to define their CSR program as “quantitatively managed,” while VPs are most likely to define their CSR program as “managed.” Directors, managers, and individual contributors — on the other hand — are most likely to define their CSR program as merely “defined.”

Why the gap in perspective? Could it be that the c-suite is out-of-touch with the reality of a mature CSR program? Or is it overconfident about the organization’s output?

Either way, our research shows that the higher up you are in the corporate ladder, the farther along you assume your CSR program is in maturity.

A Frontiers research study on organizational psychology points to the root of this over confidence. The study shows that a CEO’s prior CSR experience may positively affect the firm’s current CSR activities. According to the study, “…CEO overconfidence influences the diffusion of CSR activities. The authors theorize that overconfident CEOs are influenced more by the corporate strategies they experienced on other boards and less by the corporate strategies experienced by other directors.”

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Individual contributors feel out of touch with CSR programs

When it comes to steering CSR initiatives, who exactly is in the driver’s seat? According to our research, it’s the higher-ups. When polled, 47% of c-suiters said CSR priorities come from their own department. Other stats:

  • VPs say that VPs (18%) and the c-suite (17%) drive CSR priorities
  • Directors say directors (14%) drive CSR priorities, as well as the c-suite (12%)
  • Managers say the c-suite (24%) drives CSR priorities, followed by managers (19%)
  • Individual contributors say the c-suite (24%) drives CSR priorities

While most respondents agreed that the c-suite is primarily responsible for driving CSR priorities, manager-level employees and above took a significant level of ownership over this responsibility.

Individual contributors overwhelmingly believe that the c-suite drives priorities —perhaps suggesting that they don’t feel ownership over the CSR agenda at their level or their organization.

One thing’s for certain: transparency is key to setting and meeting CSR goals, and helping all employees feel involved. I recently wrote about how publishing an annual CSR report is one of the main ways that organizations can share their CSR progress. It can help to communicate key information about their corporate culture, commitment to employees’ mental health, and social responsibility efforts.

What’s the CSR plan? It depends on who’s leading it.

When it comes to an organization’s internal strategy, studies show that employees from the top down are not clear. In fact, according to an article by MIT Sloan Management Review, most organizations fall short when it comes to strategic alignment. “Our analysis of 124 organizations revealed that only 28% of executives and middle managers responsible for executing strategy could list three of their company’s strategic priorities,” state the authors.

The same applies to CSR priorities — in our research, employees said it’s less about an overarching plan, and more about who’s managing backstage.

Both c-suite and managers say that sustainability roles drive CSR priorities. On the other hand, VP and director-level roles say that HR drives priorities. And individual contributors name compliance, followed by HR and sustainability roles as CSR priority-leaders.

The results also show that when sustainability roles lead, the CSR priority tends to be reducing carbon footprint. When HR has its say, CSR priority is DEI. And when the compliance team is king, CSR priority is participating in fair trade.

Based on these results, an organization’s CSR program might focus on any number of priorities, depending on who’s in charge.

Good news: CSR interest is on the rise

More than 60% of our respondents report an uptick in CSR interest and investment from both employers and employees. In fact, according to a Gartner survey, 68% of employees would consider leaving their employer for not taking a stronger stance on CSR.

And when it comes to getting employees involved, our Skillsoft survey reported 37% of respondents say that offering training opportunities to help scale CSR initiatives across the organization makes a big impact on a program’s success.

For employers, that means providing CSR learning opportunities could give your organization the competitive edge — both in hiring and retaining talent.

Skillsoft offers a complete learning catalog with more than 1,000 assets on Environmental, Social Responsibility, and Corporate Governance (ESG). From “The Effects of Environmental Change on Business” to “Activating DEI Culture Shifts,” there’s truly a course for every area of CSR.

But not only that, Skillsoft is a good corporate citizen – reimagining what it looks like to be a responsible business through the lens of our corporate values. I can only hope that our efforts can inspire others in the way that UPS inspired me. We all have a lot to learn!