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CSR begins at home

How often does your sustainability manager talk to your head of HR?

Because a company’s greatest potential impact on society depends on the way it treats its staff.

Explore the website of any large corporation and you will find their Corporate Social Responsibility credentials: our contribution to charity, our community projects, our carbon footprint, our water stewardship, sustainable agriculture, renewable marine stocks etc etc. These are all important matters, but something of still greater significance is often missing.

Simon Western (1) writes “What happens in the workplace has a reflexive relationship with the wider environment. Understanding and improving the dynamics of leadership in the workplace is therefore essential to society in general”

I (and many others) have written about the importance of civility at work (see 'The Real Price of Incivility' below) in supporting motivation, creativity, and employee mental health. Most of us have heard the immortal Drucker quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, by which he meant that an appropriate enabling culture is essential to the execution of business strategy.

However, this piece is not about the internal organisational impact of a toxic workplace culture, but the societal impact. Simon Western’s point is that the way that people are treated at work has a direct impact on how they conduct themselves at home and in wider society.

It’s a sad fact that “hurt people hurt people.” If you demean and dehumanise people in the workplace they will take the damage home to their families. If you pay your employees a wage that leaves them below the poverty line, they will live in a constant state of anxiety and may consequently adopt harmful coping strategies.

If a company overstresses its executives over a prolonged period, sooner or later they will cease to feel. As a defence mechanism, their mind will disconnect their brain from their body and they will become like cold fish – this is a recognised medical condition called alexithymia (2). Their relationships both at work and outside will suffer, as will their mental health.

If you allow psychopaths to run amok unchallenged within your organisation, people will experience disabling trauma which may compromise their ability to function both at work and at home. Before you dismiss this statement, consider that according to Babiak and Hare 1% of the general population are psychopaths, as are 15% of the prison population and – interestingly from the point of view of this blog - 4% of business executives. (3)

Society will reap the consequences of inadequate parental leave in the attachment disorders of the next generation: these are issues such as difficulty showing affection, impulsivity, and depression that emanate from the disruption in the bond between a child and caregiver. Similarly, meagre annual leave provisions, and chronic overtime will eventually have consequences for the health and family relationships of your colleagues.

When I interviewed Professor Michael West of the Kings Fund (4) he said, “Compassion is the most important focus for us as a species. Imagine if all 1.4m employees of the NHS experienced compassion from their colleagues, and if they treated all the 1.0m people that the NHS treats every 36 hours with compassion, then they would take that experience out with them into the wider community.”

Organisations in the public, private and third sectors should consider those words when they craft their next CSR strategy. What are they doing about the wage differentials in their business? What are they doing to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and with civility? Where is the recognition that their personnel policies and the content of their leadership training programmes will impact on wider society, possibly for generations?

I apologise to those businesses such as Unilever who, to their credit, give their employees due consideration in their approach to CSR. As yet you are in a minority.

If you are serious about CSR but you’ve skipped the internal aspect of the people dimension, perhaps it’s time your sustainability manager and head of HR started a dialogue.


(1) Western, S (2013). Leadership, 2nd Edition, London: Sage. p24.

(2) Kets de Vries, M (2006). The Leadership Mystique, 2nd Edition. London: Prentice Hall. p93

(3) Babiak, P & Hare, R (2007). Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work. New York: Harper. p18

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