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Engage Employees with Corporate Social Responsibility

  • Gary A. Smith
November/December 2017

People often talk about motivation and engagement as if they are the same thing, but they really are not. According to the hierarchy of needs, developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, motivators are either

  • external — such as safety or security — and typically driven by need or fear
  • internal — such as self-esteem or having a sense of accomplishment — and involve want or desire.

It’s important to note that motivation is specific to an individual. How someone reacts will depend on the particular person and his or her environment.

Conversely, engagement is specific to an organization. Engaged employees are actively involved in, and dedicated to, their work. They deeply believe in and support business goals and vision.

Experts divide employee engagement into three categories: actively engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged. Unfortunately, a 2016 Gallup poll estimated that only 32 percent of U.S. workers are actively engaged. This number is even lower in the public sector, where Gallup revealed that a mere 29 percent of federal, state and local government employees are actively engaged.

Here’s where understanding the various facets of motivation and engagement becomes a powerful competitive differentiator. You see, when motivation and engagement are combined, the result is passion, and passionate employees are the real key to long-term success.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a strategy that many forward-thinking companies are using because it taps into the engagement pillars of communication, growth, recognition and trust. People generally want to support CSR-related causes and will be passionate ambassadors for such activities at their companies. These employees are more productive and have lower accident, absentee and turnover rates than their less passionate, less engaged and less motivated counterparts.

Real-world engagement

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Engaging Employees to Create a Sustainable Business,” Unilever CEO Paul Polman and CB Bhattacharya, the Pietro Ferrero Chair in Sustainability at the European School for Management and Technology, identified eight steps to engage employees through CSR:

  1. Define the company’s long-term purpose.
  2. Spell out the economic case for sustainability.
  3. Create sustainable knowledge and competence.
  4. Make every employee a sustainability champion.
  5. Cocreate sustainable practices with employees.
  6. Encourage healthy competition among employees.
  7. Make sustainability visible inside and outside of the company.
  8. Showcase higher purpose by creating transformational change.

Douglas Conant, former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, is a leader who maximized these approaches. His initiatives led to a massive expansion of CSR initiatives and the goal to achieve 100 percent employee CSR engagement by 2020. CSR is integrated into new-employee orientation and part of daily work plans and annual performance assessments. CSR objectives also are part of Campbell Soup’s executive compensation packages.

Oracle leaders also believe in the benefits of a strong CSR focus. A quote from Chief Sustainability Officer Jon Chorley on the company’s website states: “At Oracle, sustainability is everyone’s business. We maintain our facilities and run our business in a responsible manner, minimizing environmental impact. We also develop products and services that support sustainable operations and initiatives — ours and others.”

Oracle aims to have 33 percent of the energy it uses supplied by renewable sources by 2020. As of this year, it has reached 29 percent. The company also has programs that enable customers to dispose of retired equipment in a secure and environmentally responsible manner. Additionally, responsible sourcing throughout the supply chain is a fundamental goal.

Here are a few ways to leverage CSR initiatives to build a passionate workforce at your organization:

  • Publish employee CSR activities in a corporate newsletter.
  • Allow excused time off to pursue pet projects and volunteerism.
  • Host waste-reduction contests.
  • Have an annual CSR fair that highlights initiatives the company is working on.
  • Ensure CSR is part of onboarding for new hires.
  • Encourage the inclusion of CSR in corporate, departmental and individual goals.

Finally, incorporate into the program the four engagement pillars of communication, growth, recognition and trust: Communicate CSR commitment openly, honestly and directly; provide opportunities for personal and professional growth; recognize employees whenever warranted; and always bear in mind that, if you trust your people to do the right thing, they usually will. Building a passionate workforce takes time and effort, but the results are beyond measure.


Gary A. Smith, CFPIM, CSCP, CLTD, is vice president of the division of supply logistics for New York City Transit. He may be contacted at

This article was prepared by the author, acting in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not constitute, nor necessarily reflect, a statement of official policy or position of the author’s employer.

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