Parallel universes of ethical and unethical companies

While we were out celebrating Independence Day, more bad news about British bank Barclays’ lies and financial chicanery continued to break. In the US most of us saw the headlines that the bank president Bob Diamond quit in shame.

But a column in the English newspaper The Guardian shows the bank’s annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report must have been written in a parallel universe, and was even given a stamp of approval by an external auditor:

“The vast gap between the company’s behaviour and its so-called corporate sustainability aims, not only puts the value of corporate sustainability reporting in general into question, but also begs the question of whether independent social auditing is ever going to do more than just gloss over the surface of a company’s affairs.” Read the whole article here:

And so it goes. Too many companies are using CSR to whitewash – or greenwash or pinkwash – their bad behavior. When CSR is considered a mere public relations initiative to provide photo opps with needy causes while the rest of the company continues to operate unethically, the entire practice is a joke. The c-level position of CSR officer becomes mere window dressing.

The optimist will say that making a fundamental shift from words to action, of good behavior in and out of the company can still be possible. But change needs to truly come from the top-down. The CEO who can make it happen should take the same approach to CSR as she or he does to running the business, to making products and selling them. Someone like a Louis Gerstner who was recently on CNBC talking about his turnaround of IBM.

Getting to true CSR – with genuinely transparent governance, ethical business practices, sustainable operations and community participation is a true transformation of corporate culture, not an HR or PR task. The good news is it’s easier for young small and medium sized companies to tackle the change- with less institutional rigidity and more flexibility to review and make positive change that eventually ripples outward to shareholders and stakeholders alike.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.