Linnea explores effective corporate policy implementation in order to avoid ‘policy puffery’.
In the 80s and 90s, “greenwashing” became the newest corporate responsibility buzzword. The term was used to describe deceptive marketing that portrayed an organization as environmentally friendly, when its practices did not align with PR claims. Companies, ranging from the hotel industry to oil & gas, faced accusations of greenwashing.
As we enter the next phase of corporate responsibility, I fear policy puffery will become the new greenwashing. I define policy puffery as the practice of touting responsible corporate policies, but without the intention or means to implement them effectively.
Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than in the tech industry, where companies race to out-do each other with the latest employee perk. At the end of 2014, Apple and Facebook offered to pay for female employees to freeze their eggs to support infertility treatments. Both companies positioned this new perk as part of a wider aim to support women and their families. As I’ve written before, family-friendly initiatives are important tools to engage and retain women in the workforce. However, critics argue that this new policy instead sends a message to female employees to prioritize their career over starting a family. Without a strong corporate culture that promotes and encourages work-life balance, employees may interpret this policy as a suggestion to delay starting a family, rather than an exciting expansion of their current options for family planning.
Similarly, Netflix recently launched a groundbreaking unlimited parental leave policy. Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer, Tawni Cranz, wrote on the corporate blog that this policy would allow new moms and dads “to take off as much time as they want during the first year after a child’s birth or adoption.” Already Adobe and Microsoft have followed Netflix’s lead and extended their parental leave policies. Yet, the new policy has raised questions about whether employees can take advantage of the benefit. If the corporate culture does not foster an environment where parental leave is encouraged, employees may fear their careers will suffer if they take advantage of the perk. Employees need to know responsible policies are a real benefit, not an empty promise to test their commitment to their career.
Please do not misunderstand – responsible policies deserve to be celebrated. They outline and set positive expectations for the workplace. We need occupational health and safety policies to promote secure and ergonomically-friendly work environments and we need diversity and inclusion policies to protect employees against discriminatory practices. As Corporate Citizenship’s Richard Hardyment blogs, robust policies are important components of any leading corporate responsibility strategy.
However, they are only as good as their implementation. Without a strong corporate culture that supports and promotes these policies, they will be reduced to just another line in the annual corporate responsibility report.
Companies should take the TLC approach to reinforce policies and demonstrate they are more than just a recruitment tool:
- Training – Learning and development programs should integrate the new policy into relevant curriculum to help build awareness of the policy and educate managers about appropriate responses to employees seeking to access the benefit. Similarly, employees should learn how to take advantage of new perks in a sensible fashion. For example, the trainings could cover the recommended amount of advanced notice that employees should give when they want to take advantage of relevant policies.
- Leadership – Senior executives should communicate their support for the policy and take advantage of it, if applicable. For example, it would send a powerful message to Netflix employees if one of the senior leaders took extended parental leave.
- Communication – Companies should use multiple communications channels to share the rationale for the new policy and how it will be embedded in corporate practices. A multi-pronged communication strategy will help reach employees across the company and clear up any misconceptions about the policy.
Policies are a necessary step for companies to demonstrate their commitment to responsible business and define appropriate behaviors for the workplace. However, as we learned in the recent financial crisis, corporate policies, such as codes of conduct, do not suffice as the sole means to deter unethical behaviors. Companies need to have mechanisms in place to share and enforce expectations for the workplace. If not, the policy is nothing more than corporate lip service.
Linnea Texin is a Consultant for Corporate Citizenship in New York.