Some years ago a friend of mine was offered the job of corporate social responsibility manager at a big multinational company, which threw him into a state of mild panic. We met after work for a couple of soothing pints to discuss his dilemma.
At first I couldn't understand why he was worried. The job involved a double promotion, he would be reporting to a main board director and he'd been promised a budget sufficient to provoke serious envy among his colleagues. This was also a completely new position, so he could largely set his own agenda and would have few hard targets to meet. To me this seemed the perfect opportunity for him to make his mark.
"The trouble is that I'm not really ready to be a good person," he explained. "I've spent the past 20 years in sales and I'm rather good at it. I'm aggressive and competitive by nature--I love stealing customers from the opposition. Some of my competitors hate me for the way that I've undercut their prices and rubbished their products. I even drove a couple of them out of business. All of that required some really creative nastiness, I can tell you. And now I have to become Mr Nice Guy and make the world love this company. I'm not sure I can do that."
After several days of agonising he decided that he could just about bring himself to do it. And, over the next few years, he devoted his considerable skills to building a highly successful CSR activity for his company. But I think he always saw CSR as an activity--ie, something to be done in addition to business as usual, rather than something that would change the way things were done.
I began to think again about CSR and how companies actually put it into practice. It became clear that I could put firms into two categories: those for whom it's principally an activity and those for whom it's an attitude. Some have set up a substantial CSR team--similar to the one run by my friend--while others have embraced CSR in a more subtle and pervasive way. The latter have changed their values as a result and require all activities to reflect these new values.
Often, the more embedded CSR is, the less apparent it is to...