The greatest impact of CSR may be inside your business, not outside

When our company said that we were a sponsor of the new monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington, after years of promoting diversity and inclusion as core corporate values, the responses were overwhelming.

When our company said last month that we were a proud sponsor of the new monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on the National Mall in Washington, after years of promoting diversity and inclusion as core corporate values, the responses were overwhelming.

“It makes me so proud,” one blog post read. “Thank you so much for doing this,” read a second. And another said: “I am doubly moved that you have honored the memory, contributions, and commitment of this great man.”

What made the responses so gratifying is that they didn't come from outside our company, they came from inside — from associates who emailed our CEO in record numbers to express their delight that our company was identified with such a worthy cause. What most of my colleagues didn't know is the effort was launched by an individual employee within Cigna who wanted our company associated with honoring the work of an individual whose efforts sparked important and lasting social change. Yvonne VanLowe, a provider contracting director for Cigna in Bethesda, MD, first brought the idea to Cigna's attention.

It was a timely reminder, as so many organizations these days consider the external benefits of corporate social responsibility (CSR), that a strong commitment to CSR can have an even greater impact internally: engaging employees to build greater loyalty, satisfaction, and productivity — all of which are crucial to any organization delivering on its brand promise.

“Businesses that recognize the importance of social responsibility often have employees who tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, adopt similar values, and become more committed to achieving success within the industry,” said Douglas Klein, president of Sirota Survey Intelligence when the CSR boom took off four years ago.

Sirota found a steep difference in employee attitudes, toward senior management in particular, over the issue of CSR. For businesses viewed as having a strong CSR commitment, seven out of 10 employees rated senior managers as having high integrity. For businesses perceived with weak CSR records, just one in five employees rated senior managers with high character scores. Results are similar for corporate vision: for companies with a strong CSR record, two-thirds of employees viewed senior leaders as having a strong vision and sense of direction; for those with weak CSR records, it's just 18%.

Yet, it may be more important than ever to engage that moral compass: similar research has shown that stories about corporate success — beating the competition, industry leadership, share price targets — motivate only 20% of employees. Sources that drive much higher engagement scores include impact on society (building a better world), impact on the customer (making a better quality product), impact on the working team (building a sense of belonging), and impact on “me” personally (my development and bonus).

It is also crucial to hiring: MIT's Sloan School has found that CSR initiatives are increasingly becoming a deciding factor in employee recruitment and retention. And the productivity dimension is staggering: Gallup has estimated the cost of America's “disengagement crisis” at an astonishing $300 billion in lost productivity each year.

In other words, when people don't care about their jobs or employers, they don't show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers. On the other hand, when employees feel a sense of ownership and pride in a company's mission, it sparks a new level of commitment. As PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has said of her company's lauded Performance with Purpose mission, “it has galvanized PepsiCo and signaled to our employees that we recognize that they are first wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and citizens of every community in which they work. This has brought them closer to PepsiCo. And that is great for business.”

What can communications professionals do to enhance employee perceptions of CSR? Three things:

First, communicate, communicate, communicate: help employees understand the impact of your CSR commitment and the positive difference it is making in your community. As the Center for Creative Leadership said in a 2010 study of employee attitudes and CSR, “employees can't be proud of something they aren't aware of.” The positive employee posts we received last month came in response to an email sent from our CEO, David Cordani, to all associates, describing the extent of our sponsorship while outlining in heartfelt terms what the life and legacy of Dr. King means to him.

Second, involve employees directly, soliciting their ideas about the types of commitments that are important to them, and invite them to take part in the effort. Our company canvassed employees about their preferences for direct giving, which eventually pointed us to the Global Giving Fund. It allows donors to contribute to a general fund used to provide matching funds and other grant incentives for a large number of projects, from protecting children, to disaster relief, to training health professionals in Africa, to help communities affected by HIV/AIDS. Participation among our associates in the Global Giving Fund is growing exponentially.

Third, engage employees at all levels as decision makers — and encourage teamwork through a variety of volunteer opportunities. CSR is an incredible opportunity to build teamwork both laterally and vertically in your organization, to bring people from across the company together in new ways, to become engaged in both their communities and with each other. We rely on our associates – who, together, gave 23,066 hours in volunteer time last year – to identify specific projects worthy of our time and investment in their communities.

The external impact of CSR can be meaningful. But based on messages from associates like, “I will be glad to tell my children that the company I work for is an honorable and proud sponsor of the MLK memorial and his beliefs,” it's clear that the internal impact is immeasurable.

The MLK memorial symbolizes the power of a single individual to impart social change. At Cigna, as we recently launched our “Go You” brand campaign – we recognize the power of our 30,000 team members around the globe to make meaningful change in the way health service is delivered. We know there are skeptics – but as men like Martin Luther King have demonstrated, the past is not prologue and we are committed to sparking change from within.

Over the next year, we will launch important and distinct CSR programs that have been seeded by our co-workers. We are excited to have a meaningful impact, one team member at a time.

Fitzpatrick is the CCO of Cigna and president of the Cigna Foundation.

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