Do employees care about strategic corporate social responsibility?

Indeed. Here’s how strategic CSR can prompt employees to form affective bonds with their organisations.

Article based on research by Ignacio Duran (Esade), Pablo Rodrigo & Claudio Aqueveque (Adolfo Ibáñez University)

In a world riddled with socio-environmental problems, businesses can no longer afford to ignore corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many firms are responding to this global pressure by implementing initiatives that tackle social and environmental challenges. But how do CSR initiatives affect employees’ commitment?

At the core of any CSR initiative are employees: without their contribution and commitment, turning socio-environmental initiatives into reality would be pretty much impossible. Recent findings by Esade researcher Ignacio Duran in Business Ethics: A European Review provide clues as to how workers react to CSR programmes, and how their perception can influence their commitment towards an organisation.

To shed light on this matter, the authors tested their hypotheses through a sample of 579 workers of different gender, tenure, ages, job positions and industries, whose firms implemented CSR initiatives.

Our findings corroborate that strategic CSR implies a triple positive impact in the world

“Qualitative evidence suggests that employees are more engaged when they sense an alignment between CSR and a firm’s strategy and processes,” says Duran. But despite the importance of strategic CSR, many firms still conceive CSR as scattered socio-environmental actions that are not necessarily aligned with main stakeholder demands and core business processes.

“This fragmentation is an issue because scientific evidence shows that making CSR a strategic priority is beneficial for organisations,” says Duran. “Companies that ingrain stakeholder concerns into their strategy‐making process outperform competitors. Strategic CSR also helps companies manage crises and improves the quality of their sustainability reports.”

engaged employees
Related content: Hiring a chief CSR officer improves firm performance

The research findings confirm that making CSR a strategic priority sends consistent and compelling signals to employees, such as that the company is addressing stakeholders’ critical demands. This distinctive characteristic of strategic CSR makes workers believe that outsiders value their participation in the firm, which triggers two positive reactions: employees feel “as one” with the organisation and find a transcendent purpose in their jobs.

“Our findings corroborate that strategic CSR implies a triple positive impact in the world: companies can be more profitable, employees become affectively committed to their companies, and key stakeholder demands are addressed,” says Duran.

CSR and workers’ organisational commitment

The researchers contribute to “micro-CSR”, which focuses on studying an individual’s underlying psychological processes that underpin CSR. Duran and his co-authors Pablo Rodrigo and Claudio Aqueveque (Adolfo Ibáñez University) have found compelling evidence that connects CSR with an employee’s level of affective organisational commitment.

“Our research shows that sensing this type of responsible initiatives enhances a specific type of organisational commitment in employees. The rationale is that strategic CSR implies a persuasive message that sends a clear cue to employees: that companies are addressing the most important stakeholder demands, and thus are acting rightfully,” write the authors.

Employees are more engaged when they sense an alignment between CSR and a firm’s strategy and processes

These initiatives, the researchers say, resonate closer to workers’ expectations of firms’ socio‐environmental responsibilities, and form an emotional employee‐firm bond that positively affects their affective organisational commitment. In other words, workers increase their emotive involvement in the organisation due to its goals, values and activities, which makes employees enjoy membership and develop a desire to remain part of the organisation.

Affective organisational commitment is visible in several ways. For instance, employees can exhibit happiness because they belong to an organisation and remain loyal because they “want to”, not because they “need to”, as they feel a positive sentimental attachment to it. “This explains why affective organisational commitment is more strongly correlated to lower turnover and absenteeism and linked to better job performance compared to other types of organisational commitment,” say the researchers.

According to the authors, employees may develop three underlying psychological mechanisms that connect CSR with affective organisational commitment: perceived external prestige, organisational identification, and work meaningfulness.

1. Perceived external prestige

The perception of organisations as socially valued affects employees’ self‐identity, which helps them build a positive self‐image. A key outcome of this process is that employees’ self‐esteem rises, as they feel part of a renowned firm. So, people derive a part of who they are from groups they participate in, as they can satisfy certain psychological needs.

Following this psychological logic, say the authors, organisations should have attributes that workers deem to be valued by society. Otherwise, individuals might not derive pride, worth, and self‐esteem from group membership.

Conservation area
Strategic CSR constitutes a convincing and meaningful message for employees, where firms rightfully aid the most important stakeholders that are being affected by its operations (Photo: Debbie Helbing/Getty Images)

For employees, this compelling information entails that the organisation should set in motion deeply embedded CSR efforts to address the demands of priority stakeholders. “This type of CSR makes more sense to workers because it resonates closer with their personal standards and views regarding firms’ responsibilities.”

Strategic CSR constitutes a convincing and meaningful message for employees, where firms rightfully aid the most important stakeholders that are being affected by its operations. This could be interpreted as a socially valued characteristic that could lead workers to believe that others think highly of their group membership, hence increasing its perceived external prestige.

2. Organisational identification

Individuals value belonging to groups that share their beliefs, have a positive perceived social identity and are well‐regarded by others. As suggested by social identity theory, this happens because this evaluation leads workers to enhance their sense of worth, and hence their self‐esteem, by participating in the company’s successes.

When employees identify with their company because of its CSR activities, they are proud of it, and hence perceive themselves as responsible members of society

“Our findings show that organisational identification is a key path in raising  employees’ affective organisational commitment. These identification mechanisms stem from employees’ beliefs that others hold their company in high regard.” According to the authors, this occurs because strategic CSR constitutes a persuasive and meaningful message for workers and presumably for society, which makes the role of perceived external prestige key in engendering organisational identification.

“When employees identify with their company because of its CSR activities, they are proud of it, and hence perceive themselves as responsible members of society. Because pride is essentially an emotional response, this in turn increases their affective organisational commitment because identification through strategic CSR could constitute a reflection of workers’ personal views and expectations, thus creating an affective‐sentimental attachment to the organisation.”

3. Work meaningfulness

Another aspect that can make employees feel proud of their organisation is that of finding a transcendent purpose in the job itself. Here is where strategic CSR also plays a crucial role in forming employees’ affective bonds with their organisations. “When firms adopt a new role in society and take socio‐environmental concerns into account, employees may feel that their work goes beyond profit and contributes to a better world, thus providing a deeper meaning in what they do,” say the researchers.

CSR can help workers have a 'calling' and find a deeper meaning in their jobs

Strategic CSR makes employees proud and thus enhances their self-esteem. Although the transcendence of jobs is a characteristic of socially valued professions such as nursing or firefighting, the authors say that strategic CSR can help workers have a “calling” and find a deeper meaning in their jobs while working in more “traditional” business sectors such as banking or logistics. “Working for an entity that is socially deemed to be fair  in its interactions with stakeholders may satisfy individuals’ need for a meaningful existence,” the researchers conclude.

Practical implications of these research findings

  • To generate a workforce with high levels of affective organisational commitment, managers should redesign CSR initiatives in two ways. First, orient these activities to address key stakeholder demands, and second, ingrain these programmes into the company’s mission, activities, and strategic processes.
  • One way in which strategy‐CSR fit could enhance profitability is by causing employees to develop higher levels of affective organisational commitment, which could raise their productivity and lower turnover and absenteeism.
  • A workforce with a high degree of affective organisational commitment could become a rare and inimitable asset, and thus a source of sustained competitive advantage.
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