In today’s world of knock-offs and over-publicized, self-congratulatory acts of charity to garner media attention, what it means to be “authentic” has been severely diluted. Maybe that Rolex watch you bought on the streets of Manhattan will impress your friends and family. Perhaps that Louis Vuitton bag you found at that swap meet in South Central L.A. will not only be functional, but fashionable. In those cases, authenticity might not matter; you may only be going for a “look” and whether or not the product is “authentic” may not be of any real consequence.
On the other hand, when authenticity is a key factor in your decision-making as to the companies you will support, the products you will buy, and the places that you will work, then authenticity may make all of the difference. You might take notice of the business that “adopts a highway,” but their real motive may be merely to advertise their name on a highway sign while they operate in a manner that fails to minimize their impact on the environment or doesn’t treat their workers well. Perhaps you’re conscious about your choice in personal care products; you seek out ones that are chemical free. Without any regulations around the word “natural,” you purchase a product that you think will be “better” or “safer” for your family, only to find ingredients on the product label that you can’t pronounce, have numerous number combinations before words (i.e. “1,3 undecipherable word”), and contradict what most people would find to be “healthy” or “natural.” Believe it or not, it’s completely legal – whether it’s ethical or authentic is another story.
Thus, is the slippery slope of authenticity. When does it matter, when does it not? I would posit that when it comes to developing and executing a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plan, authenticity is one of the three “must haves” to make it effective and to achieve the maximum return on investment (ROI). Without having a strategic, integrated, and most importantly, authentic, CSR plan, your business risks significant criticism in the media, with your target consumer base, and among the talent pool that you need to attract and retain to be successful.
When it comes authenticity, it must be embedded throughout the four pillars of CSR: Community Engagement, Employee Engagement, Sustainability, and Corporate Philanthropy. Obviously, there are a myriad of ways that authenticity can be strategically aligned with both your product and throughout the CSR channels. In the interest of keeping this blog post brief, I’ll focus on one example. Also, it’s important to note that when it comes to developing your CSR plan, oftentimes, the intersection of the four pillars will become blurred, with initiatives often crossing into multiple categories.
Here’s the example: You have a new food item going to market and want to appeal to those consumers who specifically seek out healthier alternatives. How can you strategically integrate authenticity throughout your CSR program that may give you a competitive advantage?
For starters, your “community” should be viewed as both consumers as well as the geographical communities impacted by the production of your product (I will address employee engagement in the next section). To that end, if you want to appeal to health-conscious consumers, limit the ingredients to as few as possible and to only those considered to be “natural” or organic. Maybe apply for organic or non-GMO certification. Utilize as many locally-sourced ingredients as is possible to reduce your product’s carbon footprint. Apply screens for ingredients (local, organic, natural, etc.) up the entire supply chain to ensure authenticity.
Engage the community (local to your manufacturing and/or company headquarters) as much as possible, prioritize the hiring of locals, philanthropic giving to community-based organizations, and create community-enhancing/helping charity events/projects. Open up your facility to weekly public tours. Allow the community to use your meeting rooms for their community organizing. Invite local politicians to have a “town hall” exchange with your workforce. Provide opportunities for members of the community to participate in R&D trials and sampling events, seek their feedback, and pay them for their time.
Have a story that says and shows, “We care about our community: the people that buy our product, the communities in which we have a physical presence, and the world itself.”
Assuming that you have authentically engaged your community, congratulations, you’ve now piqued the interest of workers desiring to work for a company that might have a greater purpose! The next step is to utilize your integrated CSR plan to engage your employees and, if you’re successful, become an employer of choice – a company for which everyone wants to work. You can do this by engaging your employees in an authentic way. Spoiler alert: just adding a ping pong table won’t do the trick!
The work environment should be underpinned by a clear mission, an inspiring vision, and a defined set of values. Having these elements alone will go a long way to engaging your workers in a meaningful way. The work environment should also be healthy, safe, and fun. Further, you can utilize your employee engagement work to tie back into Community Engagement projects in the geographical community (say, time off for volunteer work or “dollars for doers programs”), company day-of-service events, charitable giving via matching or employee involvement in corporate charitable giving decisions. Explore alternative hierarchies that rely more on self-managed teams rather than top-down directives. Utilize 360-degree feedback loops, open books policies, non-traditional compensation, profit sharing, and employee ownership plans. Have regular, scheduled company-wide, social events.
Really, any employee engagement that goes beyond what is traditionally considered as a “typical” employee-employer relationship of “work for pay” will go a long way in providing authenticity to your company’s CSR plan.
Have a story that says and shows, “We care about our workers as people and want them engaged in the business itself – not just producing our product and profits, but in the decisions necessary to run our business.”
In my next post, I will cover how authenticity can be embedded into the other two pillars of CSR (Corporate Philanthropy and Sustainability).