Does corporate responsibility really matter to graduates?

Personal ethics can be a guiding factor for graduates considering job offers

According to studies, 49 per cent of millennials say they have turned down jobs that conflict with their personal ethics. Photograph: iStock

According to studies, 49 per cent of millennials say they have turned down jobs that conflict with their personal ethics. Photograph: iStock

 

Does corporate social responsibility (CSR) matter to graduates? According to 2017 studies from Deloitte and PwC, it does, with 49 per cent of millennials saying they have turned down jobs that conflict with their personal ethics.

In a former role, Sinéad Gibney established and ran Google Social Action, a CSR function for Google Ireland. She went on to work as director of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and is now a Social Democrat candidate for the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown constituency in south Co Dublin. She believes the importance of CSR to graduates is overstated.

“There’s no doubt that, for talent attraction, it’s important for companies to practice good CSR,” she says. “And yes, perhaps if a candidate is given two identical job offers and one company has a better CSR record, it might sway them. But I suspect that pay, benefits and location ultimately win over in the decision-making process. And why wouldn’t they? People have so many challenges facing them now with the housing crisis, childcare costs and student debt.”

As part of an EU initiative, Ireland produced an action plan on CSR in 2014, with the most recent plan launched last year.

In addition, a CSR forum is run from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, chaired by Catherine Heaney, managing director of DHR Communications – a PR firm that is recognised for its particular emphasis on CSR and supporting charity comms. The forum is made up of stakeholders from across multinational corporations and academia.

The forum organises regular events throughout Ireland for businesses, and a recent event in Cavan saw them speak to local small and medium enterprises about how CSR can make a difference to their business.

But is it possible that CSR can be used by large firms to whitewash unethical behaviour? “CSR goes beyond mere compliance,” Heaney says.

‘Workers’ rights’

“Companies operating in Ireland have to comply with corporate regulations and workers’ rights, but those sitting at the table with us go beyond what is expected in law. That means working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the circular economy [which emphasises reducing, reusing and recycling instead of excessive consumption]. Key issues include tackling climate change and diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as well as running programmes in the local area and community and overseas. Workers’ rights are another key pillar in the CSR so if, for instance, a company is hosting a staff picnic during the summer but making them work 15-hour days without overtime, they’re not fulfilling their commitments.”

Heaney says today’s graduates want to make a difference in their workplace, going beyond mere compliance and standard ethics, and that people also want to buy from ethical companies, pointing to the recent consumer backlash against excessive packaging.

Corporate environments tend to have a small group of people who repeatedly volunteer and champion internal CSR and diversity programmes, Gibney says.

During her time in the IHREC, she became more familiar with an area known as business and human rights: the UN has issued guidelines on it and Ireland has a national action plan which is led by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“It tends to be perceived as relevant only to a company’s activities abroad, such as labour or environmental exploitation in poorer countries. But it can apply to all activities that a company is engaged in, and how they interact with the human rights and equality standards of the jurisdiction where they’re located, and this means it has the potential to bring a much-needed external standardisation and benchmarking process to corporate activity. I don’t think it will, or should replace CSR, but perhaps it could be implemented alongside it to bring more rigour.”

Companies embracing CSR

Once just a footnote in many companies’ business strategy, CSR has moved to the fore as firms increasingly focus on presenting a positive image of themselves to the public.

The expectations held by recruits have changed over the years and the research is there to back this up. Millennials will often have a distrust of large businesses and to protect against reputational vulnerabilities, companies are increasingly investing in CSR. Six in 10 millennials surveyed for the 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey cited a “sense of purpose” as part of the reason they chose to work for their current employers.

Nielsen reported in 2016 that 86 per cent of future talent from 15 countries said it was important the company they worked for behaved in a socially responsible way.

Attitudes towards corporate responsibility are markedly different to previous generations and companies that wish to boost their reputation are increasingly focusing on the promotion of corporate reputation strategies in order to be seen to be putting their best foot forward.

Arthur Cox, a major Irish corporate law firm with offices in Dublin, Belfast, London, New York and Silicon Valley, is one firm which has embraced CSR across a number of areas.  

The firm’s CSR programme covers four main pillars – pro-bono work, volunteering, charitable activities and the environment.

Arthur Cox partners with charities Jigsaw, The Peter McVerry Trust and The Jack & Jill Foundation. In addition, the firm runs its trainee-led 'Zambia Project'. Every year a group of Arthur Cox trainees travels to Zambia to work on designated projects focused on improving the standard of living for the local community.

Over the last 10 years more than 100 volunteers have participated in the project and have raised over €510,000 for the cause.

Some of the projects that have been completed include building schools, building a maternity hospital and building radio schools for children who cannot attend formal schools.

All the programmes are designed to avoid dependence and become self-funding, with a carefully-managed handover to the local community or local government.

Pros and cons of CSR

Pros

Positive publicity

Repairing reputation damage

Attracting and retaining employees

Helping to motivate employees

Recognition in new markets

Cons

Can be a distraction from the core business objective

CSR often increases expenditure

Shareholder resistance – investors buy stock on the expectation of turning a profit and can be put off by a shift in focus

CSR can be seen as a PR ploy designed to deflect negative attention