Corporate social responsibility is taking on new meaning

August 24, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC
Gary Yeowell—Getty Images

Mastering corporate social responsibility today is a matter of survival—both the survival of the planet but also of our free-market system with its existing regulatory and corporate structures.

“We have a lot of anti-capitalism, anti-corporation sentiment out there,” Dambisa Moyo, former Goldman Sachs economist and current board member at Chevron and 3M, previously told Fortune. A recent Fortune survey found that 43% of Gen Zers and millennials view capitalism as at least “somewhat negative.” 

In order to address these rising anti-corporate sentiments, forward-thinking leaders are expanding the scope of their CSR efforts. As is the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion, the modern solution for CSR requires making it a core competency of the organization, and cascading that message from the top.

“Being a leader means no longer staying silent on critical societal challenges,” Kristen Titus, executive director of the Cognizant Foundation, told Fortune. “Employees, customers, and communities alike are demanding action. Effective leaders must center these very communities and their voices to solve global challenges—from designing more equitable programs and policies to building more resilient, sustainable communities.”

In a recently released book on stakeholder capitalism, Moyo wrote that CEO selection needs to better incorporate ethics into the vetting process, with less emphasis on financial and operational performance. She added that boards need to become “custodians not just of a single organization but of our economic well-being as a whole.”

Board and C-suite leaders can make their companies stand out with enthusiastic, authentic efforts to achieve this new imperative and ensure that their companies have a positive impact on society. These leaders have long known how to say the right things. They have been less effective at actually cocreating a better society.

“It’s especially important in times like these that stakeholder capitalism dictates our actions, and business serves as a platform for change,” Suzanne DiBianca, EVP and chief impact officer at Salesforce, told Fortune. “Each company can look deeply at each department in their business for how and where they can have an impact. All businesses have the opportunity to align to their core competency to create the change we need at scale.”

Garrett Lord, cofounder and CEO of Handshake, a recruiting software startup recently valued at over $1.5 billion, told Fortune that his company quickly mobilized to build a virtual career fair offering to meet the needs of businesses and job seekers during the pandemic.

“Leaders should ask themselves: ‘What issue is closest to our company’s heart, and how are we uniquely equipped to help?’” he said, explaining that Handshake’s new feature was part of that answer.

Lord also shared how his leadership style has evolved in light of the rapid changes in the business climate.

“I’ve historically been intently focused on business metrics and tangible impact,” he said. “But as we’ve grown…I’ve learned that by combining compassion with accountability, you can create a psychologically safe workplace and motivate teams in a more human way.”

Compassionate leadership is not just for the “warm and fuzzies” but is also a benefit for the bottom line.

Job candidates are asking more about diversity and a prospective employer’s social mission. Employees increasingly want to work for a company more aligned with their purpose over the one that pays the most. And with more geographic freedom to pursue high-paying jobs anywhere, clearly the labor market is placing a premium on the autonomy that comes with a remote or hybrid job.

Leaders can anticipate this bottom-line benefit growing in the future, especially as the regulatory climate is shifting for publicly traded companies around ESG metrics, organized labor, and more.

“From a business perspective, you’re able to attract, motivate, and retain top talent if you’re focused on making a positive impact on society,” Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, told Fortune. Coursera recently made the effort and investment to become a certified B Corp. Though he admits it isn’t for everyone, Maggioncalda felt strongly that it was worth it for his company.

This imperative is also why Coursera is allowing employees to work from anywhere, Maggioncalda said. He explained that while he was considering productivity and the logistics of this decision, he also felt it would have serious talent implications if they didn’t meet the demands of a newly empowered labor market.

The ongoing remote work debate is a good example of the disconnect that some executive leaders have with the current climate. Not only is it bad business, but insisting employees come into an office, when they don’t want to or don’t need to, is going to impede diversity, talent development, and ultimately a company’s ability to succeed under these rapidly evolving conditions.

“While we are still learning how to optimize remote work at scale, I’m particularly excited by the opportunity it provides to build a more inclusive workforce now that we can recruit candidates who live outside a commuting distance from our offices,” Maggioncalda said. “More than half the employees who started at Coursera during the pandemic don’t live near an office, and I expect a significant percentage of our workforce to be remote and distributed in the future.” 

Remote work is just one example, but it’s a big one that helps explain the connections between business ethics, compassionate leadership, and company performance. 

“Going forward, leaders will be required to rethink how teams work together, even if that change feels uncomfortable or uncertain,” Dan Shapero, LinkedIn COO, told Fortune. “Top talent will demand more flexibility and trust from leadership so that they can do their best work in a way that makes sense for them and their teams. As in most times of change, great leaders that embrace this moment of change, and learn as they go, will shine and outperform.”

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