Connecting Corporate Responsibility with Personal Responsibility

January 30, 2014

IBM’s Mark Wakefield argues that in 2014, we as individuals need to reconnect our own values and ideals with the expectations that we place on companies.

One of the potential challenges with Christmas – apart from the unsustainable and conspicuous consumption! – is that it can give us plenty of time to reflect. This is no bad thing, of course, depending on your particular train of thought.

During Christmas I met up with friends for (responsible) drinks. They like to indulge in some gentle banter: “Are you still doing that job – you know – the one where you try and persuade us that companies really are nice and responsible and caring”, or sometimes rather more harshly quote a former Labour Minister’s view of CSR: “putting lipstick on the pig”. Fortunately at the other end of the spectrum there are some amongst my friends who consider CSR to be a most noble calling! The conversation proceeded and I, of course, defended my position.

Some hours later, I found myself thinking: “So what is an acceptable level of behaviour? Who decides? Are CSR practitioners, along with other institutions such as the police, social workers or even MPs, going to be forever stuck with trying to manage the arguably increasingly unrealistic expectations of some or all of our stakeholders?”

These expectations touch every aspect of our lives: perfect products, services and behaviour. We want to live in a society where nothing terrible ever happens because all risks have been mitigated, where all impacts have been foreseen and managed so that only positive outcomes result. Nothing wrong with these ideals to which we understandably aspire, other than the lack of realism that, to my mind, they reflect.

This train of thought led to thinking about the yawning gap that seems to exist between personal responsibility and collective responsibility. There appears to be a disconnect between a state of mind where we are always ‘in the right’, behave ethically and are never personally responsible for wider issues. However, organisations often do not meet our expectations. They regularly let us down or sometimes even deliberately set out to deceive us – yet they are of course staffed by employees who individually surely share the same ethics and ideals as our own.

Why do some people not manage to always transfer those personal values and aspirations to their organisational responsibilities? At what point do they stop using their critical faculties and stop caring, or start allowing their personal desires to overtake their collective responsibilities? Have they ever challenged those who would have them behave with anything less than perfect integrity?

I recalled being invited to a seminar to launch a new initiative designed to enable business leaders to develop creative approaches to managing their businesses in an ethical and responsible way. A noble ambition which will, it is claimed, deliver the Nirvana that we – employers, employees, consumers, clients and other stakeholders – reputedly seek: well run businesses that deliver a positive impact for all stakeholders.

Perhaps inevitably, the discussion during the seminar turned to the insidious impact of short-termism and demands from institutional investors for ever-increasing returns, sometimes driving businesses to subvert their well-intentioned principles.

It wasn’t long before convenient stereotypes were quickly flying around about unprincipled investors, with no thought of consequences, destroying the very fabric of our society! And yet I believe the largest single group of investors in the London Stock Exchange are the pension funds – who endeavour to ensure that the companies they invest in deliver the best returns for the elderly of the future – or more specifically, us.

Therein is the dilemma that lies at the heart of many of the debates about the current challenges in society: climate change, unsustainable consumption of finite resources, debt, the growing differentials between the rich and the poor. Somehow we fail to make the connection between our own needs, wants and aspirations and the resulting demands that we subsequently place on organisations serving us.

Those of us who are in private pensions technically ‘own’ those pension funds. So, in theory, we could collectively demand our pension providers adopt criteria that lead to a more responsible set of behaviours from the companies they invest in. In fairness, there is already movement towards this approach – if only because our vested self-interests not only demand high returns today but tomorrow too. We need those companies to keep laying their golden eggs.

Society is often demanding two arguably mutually exclusive outcomes from organisations – sustainability and high returns. I’m as personally guilty of this as the next person, but if we are to make real progress then I think we have to find a way of achieving this. We need to think not just in terms of organisational responsibility, collective responsibility and personal responsibility but to make the connections between them all and to see the bigger picture. I think we’ve already started to see some evidence of this – but we need to accelerate this process and I think we’ll see a greater focus on this during 2014. Hold on – did I just retell Dickens’s Christmas Carol from a CSR perspective?

Mark Wakefield is Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs Manager at IBM.