I like someone who can call a spade a spade. Elaine Cohen hits a bull’s eye in her introduction. After commenting on the current state of the CSR agenda she goes on to say: “HR managers are preoccupied with their traditional roles of organisational development, recruitment, training and compensation, and are failing to see the opportunities that CSR brings for them as professionals, for their organisations and for global sustainability.” Well, guilty as charged there! Time after time CSR consultants engage with companies where the function that is least enthused about CSR is human resources, (though Investor Relations often runs them a close second).
Ms Cohen renders an explanation: “HR professionals are just emerging from the transactional nature of their roles into the business partnership transformation mind set, and have not yet understood that the business focus has moved on to a level that requires CSR thinking and practice”. Ouch! The truth hurts.
As Marx noted,: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Ms Cohen acts on this adage by devoting the rest of the book to a practical exposition of how a bog-standard human resources function can transform itself by taking CSR on board. She does this by means creating a fictional firm with a fictional human resources manager and tracing the journey. In itself this is a worthwhile enterprise and is eminently dip-able into. The narrative is supported by examples of good practice from firms as different as ANZ, Gap Inc. and Royal Dutch Shell. Ms Cohen sets out the case topic by topic with the clarity of a teacher setting out expectations for the coming term and the unshakeable conviction of an apostle of CSR.
And yet at the end of the book I at least harboured lingering doubts. This is entirely a function of where the CSR agenda is at with regard to employees rather than with Ms Cohen’s able exposition of it. The move to active, thorough and comprehensive management of CSR over the past two decades has touched the employee stakeholder least. Many companies engage in active dialogue with suppliers, customers, consumers, communities and government as part of their CSR delivery, few engage with their employees.
Perhaps the reason for that is that to do so would necessitate asking some fundamental questions: what is employment for? What are the fundamental moral obligations that an employer has to employees? What do employees want from their employers? How can this be counterbalanced against the needs of the other stakeholders? These are uncomfortable questions. It is not clear to me at least that if they were thoroughly addressed that the answers would be comforting to all employees. A debate needs to be had. Ms Cohen has done a good job at setting out the implications of the current CSR agenda for employees. That job completed she may find herself at a loose end. Maybe she could go on now to tackle these fundamental questions.
Peter is an Associate Director at Corporate Citizenship and specialises in a number of aspects: reporting, report assurance and external standards. His clients have included Cadbury, HSBC, Lafarge and SABMiller.