Social Responsibility: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons?

One issue that regularly arises in a discussion of corporate social responsibility relates to the motives of companies. Are they really trying to “do the right thing?” Or, are they pursuing good solely for marketing reasons?

Critics scoff at the practice of social responsibility and particularly when incongruent with the company’s overall actions. They call it greenwashing, a decoy, a façade, a deception, and the like. In other words, selective actions are not reflective of what the company is doing, but rather a superficial ploy to mask the fact that the company is indeed unethical or socially irresponsible. Enron, for example, had a great code of ethics and was a contributor to many community projects.

Are these individual examples of “doing the right thing” actually wrong? Of course, society generally and stakeholders specifically should examine the approach of companies, especially when these companies are trying to present their actions as reflective of an overall approach to business. The public has a right to scrutinize actions and point out inconsistencies with the messages being presented.

I think it is important, however, to distinguish the value of the overall concept of social responsibility and the inability of all specific companies to carry through on its execution. Just as there are examples of shortcomings there are many examples of companies doing well.

We should be relieved, however, that companies sense that it is important to be perceived as a positive contributor to their communities. Some companies will lead the way by being genuinely committed to making a positive difference in their communities. Other companies may be implementing programs for the sake of being seen to be good corporate citizens; at least they are succumbing positively to the court of public opinion.

I think it would be mistake to discourage those companies that have not matured sufficiently in their approach to corporate social responsibility. If we think they are hypocritical, should we tell them to stop trying to contribute to society? In a like manner, should we discount an individual’s contribution if there are any self-serving motives or it they receive any benefit whatsoever?

McGill alumnus Seymour Schulich is a well-known philanthropist in Canada. He has succeeded wildly and has focused much of his largesse on Canadian education institutions. There is the Schulich School of Business at York, the Schulich School of Music at McGill and the list goes on and on. In his autobiography Get Smarter: Life and Business Lessons he explains that he wants to make a difference and that he wants his family name to live on as a legacy. Would we prefer instead that he builds himself a bigger mansion?

With businesses I believe there are different dynamics than with individuals. Companies are legal persons. They are members of and should be viewed as contributors to the community. Companies should be talking about what they are doing in order to inform the community and to show leadership. Stakeholders want to know what a company is doing.

Even when the actions are somewhat self-serving they can still be commendable. For example, law firms may give out scholarships to law school students and establish prizes for academic excellence with the intent of positioning themselves favourably with the cream of the crop. Should we instead wish that the law firm did nothing?

Should we wish that the companies simply gave money anonymously so that the community can be assured that they are acting with the purest of intentions? For individuals this would be the pinnacle of noble motives. However, it doesn’t apply to most companies. They have stakeholders who deserve to know what they are doing. In addition, examples of social responsibility provide leadership for the entire community.

A few mere decades ago it was axiomatic that companies focused solely on making money. We should celebrate the fact that companies are now motivated to have giving profiles. In different eras, and even in our present day in other cultures, there is often no currency in being socially responsible.

So, despite the fact that companies may be criticized, they should be encouraged to persist in positive actions. If a company has given some money to a particular cause, we can applaud that action. It is an admirable act that we should encourage while at the same time holding companies accountable.

We should also recognize that companies are imperfect vehicles through which positive actions can occur. Each company will be at a different stage of the journey to achieving greater holistic social responsibility. We question the motives of others; we rarely question our own. Instead of critiquing them for where they are on the journey towards social responsibility, we should acknowledge that they have taken the first step.