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Is “Human Social Responsibility” the New Standard for Responsible Business in the COVID-19 Era?

Updated: May 19, 2020

United Nations COVID-19 Response

More so then any point in my lifetime we’re seeing humans at the center of virtually every decision. Although I’m young, I can’t say I’ve seen such a convergence of government, private and non-profit sector resources and solutions for the greater good. While we can question the motives of some and debate the best course of action, I believe most are genuine in having good intentions. Perhaps I’m naïve in thinking that. Maybe you’ll be the person to wake me from a delusion. But, regarding the private sector response to COVID-19, perhaps this is the catalyst that’ll shift the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to human social responsibility (HSR). You may recall my thoughts on how COVID-19 accelerated the role and expectations of corporate responsibility. But, is HSR the answer? That’s what I’d like to discuss.

Listen, when I first heard the concept of HSR in 2015, I wasn’t convinced. It just seemed like another buzzword to attract attention to yet another flavor of CSR. Perhaps I just didn’t understand the idea. But, as we see the continued response to the pandemic while ushering in a new era of responsible business, I think I finally get it. By no means do I consider myself a proselytizer at this point, but with more dialogue I might be convinced to become a firm believer.

When compared to the history of responsible business, HSR is a relatively new idea.

The concept has made its way through some circles over the years. In my opinion much of this is credited to the strongest and most outspoken champion of this idea Rachel Hutchisson, the Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Philanthropy at Blackbaud.

For those unfamiliar, HSR is the shift from focusing on corporate to human in how organizations serve the community. Or, as Hutchisson describes it in a 2016 CSRwire Talkback interview, HSR is “the shift in focus from corporate social responsibility to a more people and community centric effort”. And there’s merit in doing so. She suggests making this shift allows you to do two things. One, you’ll remove barriers and uncover who’s at the heart of an organization (the employees) and two, you’ll create more opportunity for them to have a voice (in community service) even if they’re not at the decision-making table.

Similarly, in a 2015 Huffington Post blog, the former CEO of InterQuest Group Ltd, Mark Braund while referencing his company’s social impact initiative he stated that their “focus is much less associated with corporate social responsibility but intrinsically aligned with human social responsibility”. What he was referring to is their initiative being less about the corporate drive and more about one that is human. He went on to say “the benefit of hosting these events should not be seen as an opportunity for PR exposure or the derived financial incentive of social performance but instead should be about strengthening relationships within the organization, supporting our peers and opening discussion on the impairments we are all affected by”.

Now, I recognize the desire for companies to pursue social impact initiatives for the expressed end goal of PR exposure and brand reputation. That said, I believe in Hutchisson's and Braund’s philosophy in that you should serve the community’s needs first as the primary goal. I also believe that in doing so, any resulting PR exposure and brand reputation boost will be far better than if that was pursued as the primary goal from the onset.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

The traditional idea of CSR is very defensive.

As Hutchisson points out, “the focus on corporate” is a problem, and I agree. Focusing on corporate in many cases is centered on the drive of the company and not the community. I would even argue that it could possibly be silently sabotaging a company's social good initiatives as a result. In her TEDx Talk (TEDxWilmington) she shares that over 70 percent of all employees in the United States work for businesses that are, in her words “anything but corporate”, and she’s right. Most businesses in America are small to mid-sized. It’s also estimated 80 percent of these businesses are considered “non-employer”, meaning, they’re owned and operated by a single person. One of the limiting factors she points out is that CSR (which is about giving back and being socially responsible) has corporate at its “very heart”, and by default it leaves too many people out of the decision-making process. Hutchisson states, “you’re putting up barriers with the very language you use” that could leave employees thinking it’s not for them.

Words matter as history has shown.

I believe words matter so much in fact, that the language used by a company in how they describe and communicate their programs can provide insight into their philosophy. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at some words.

Take the word philanthropy for example, it stems back to the second century AD, where the Greek philosopher Plutarch used the concept of philanthrôpía to describe what he called superior human beings. Of course, this has since been modernized. But even modern concepts of traditional philanthropy are usually understood as shorter-term donations of resources through fundraising, often as a one-time contribution. And still to this day that language is used by companies in how they describe their programs. Some calling their social good initiatives “corporate philanthropy” or in the sports community “sports philanthropy”. Sometimes (but not in all cases) this can give you insight to how they seek to serve the communities where they do business.

But then came CSR and its identical twin corporate citizenship (CC).

While CSR and CC concepts are more fully integrated with the traditional business functions at a company, to Hutchisson’s point both still focus on the company at the center. In recent years I’ve also seen CSR programs take on new language like “social impact” and “responsible business”. So, what’s the difference between social impact, responsible business and HSR? Not sure if I’m being honest. Perhaps it’s all the same with different nomenclature.

One thing I do know however, is that the difference in language used when referencing social impact programming highlights a very real divide in the social good space. It shows the glaring disagreement among the professionals who both work and lead these programs. While I won’t address this here, I think it’s important to acknowledge the social good space is not at all in lockstep in how to solve even the most basic of social and environmental issues.

That’s an issue.

Photo by Levi Saunders on Unsplash

People make up the very companies they work for.

But, getting back to the word “corporate”, I do agree that it ignores the fact that people are at the heart of their respective companies. As Hutchisson shares, it ignores the fact that people bring their “whole selves” to work, and in doing so they bring “life to the vision and purpose” of the workplace. I couldn’t agree more. We’re incredibly unique and come from all walks of life. And in this age, we’re seeing job candidates more purposefully seeking employment with companies that align with their moral code and values as individuals.

But while she says it’s a delicate balancing act between your people and your community (which I agree with), I personally struggle a bit at the notion of taking the cue from employees. I’ll tell you why.

I believe companies have tremendous resources. If focused in the wrong direction, for too many things and stretched too far, these resources can be squandered. Here’s what I mean by that. The goods and services from a company have greater social value when they’re strategically and thoughtfully applied to communities in need. For example, grocery stores are in a better position to serve non-profits that provide food services and social nets for those living in poverty or experiencing food insecurity. Similarly, those who work in hospitality, food and beverage and the restaurant industry are also uniquely positioned to use their skills as volunteers to both feed others while also developing the capacity of those same types of non-profits in the social space. Or here’s an obvious connection, companies in the technology industry can support non-profits that focus on developing historically marginalized minority communities in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The list goes on.

Now, that’s not to say we should kill the joy and prevent employees from pursuing their passions. But it shouldn’t be the primary focus if you’re deeply invested in solving critical issues. This is most certainly the case when you’re focusing your efforts on larger goals like the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Each of the 17 SDGs have specific targets and indicators. And while these are global goals, they show up in many ways often unique to a specific community. How can you possibly focus on any specific SDG if you’re constantly making it about the passions of each employee?

Again, we mustn’t ignore the voice of the employees. But when going back to the original example, it just wouldn’t make sense for a grocery chain, hospitality company, restaurant or those in food and beverage to primarily focus their resources on causes they’re less equipped to deal with, like cancer or virus and disease research for example. Perhaps that cause area is better suited for a company in healthcare. And I know it’s not that simple, but the point I’m making is that I hesitate to suggest we take the signal from employees at the start.

Now, Hutchisson’s she does share that while taking cues from the employees, you can’t forget or lose sight of a company’s purpose. In her words (when referencing employee purpose), “don’t make the mistake of ignoring theirs”, which is key. And It would behoove those in the social good space to at least create the mechanism that allows the employee voice and choice to the degree it makes sense for their company.

But at the core, HSR is about knowing what both the employees and your community care about, including their voice in who and how you serve, and then empowering them to do so while partnering with the community. To me that's a good concept to embrace, regardless of what you call it.

From high level idea to tactical execution.

While the idea has been around for just over five years, not many are executing the concept. While you may feel the toughest part is the actual execution, it may be more within your reach as a concept than you believe. Matter of fact, there’s a small business called TechDad that’s implemented this concept into how they seek to serve the community. So, leaders are implementing HSR.

Perhaps HSR hasn’t been widely adopted because we still need a continued shift in how leaders within the social good space philosophically seek to serve the community. Personally, I believe we need greater diversity of thought in the field anyways. After all, regardless of how we label social good initiatives (i.e. CSR, CC, HSR, Social Impact, Responsible Business) I’m a firm believer in putting the community at the forefront. You can even do so without negatively impacting your business.

Hutchisson also goes on to say “when you focus on human instead of corporate, your brand actually gains in stature. You become more real, you become more relevant”. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I would also add that when finding that balance when taking the cue from the community and employees, by serving the community well, first and foremost, the outcomes for the company are so much better.

Some may struggle with this being more of a high-level idea or even convoluting the conversation of what responsible business is. I understand that. But, regardless of what we call it, I think the idea can (in many cases should) be executed. I’m certain Hutchisson has an idea of her own on tactical level execution, as do I.

My final thoughts on this; regardless of how you feel about the concept, to me one thing must be addressed. It’s the idea of responsible business being better for the people, both the community and the employees. As we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic it’s apparent that humans will continue to be at the forefront of decisions. We must not let our social good initiatives fall behind, society won’t allow it and we must prepare now.

But enough from me, what do you think? Is this idea bad for business? Or perhaps you think it’s complicating an already complicated discussion? Regardless, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the merits of adopting HSR as your strategy or its place in the COVID-19 era. Until then and as states reopen, please stay Responsible AF. Practice social distancing, respect others and just wear a mask and keep washing your hands.

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