CSR's missing piece

CSR’s missing piece (October 23, 2006)

Ben Teehankee

Green Light, Manila Standard Today

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is hot! The business magazines and the business sections of the broadsheets give it ample coverage. BizNews Asia's September 25 issue shows the Lopez's beaming on the front cover, apparently quite pleased with themselves given the magazine's assessment that "few Philippine CSR projects have the breadth, depth and reach of the Lopez Group's Knowledge Channel..."

Reviewing the annual reports of the top Philippine corporations, one is struck by how CSR has reached such prominence given its complete non-mention ten years ago, to a few token lines a few years ago, and now a separate annual report just on CSR being issued by companies such as Manila Water. Boy, have we really come a long way!

I can't help but be pleased, naturally. I've always found the Milton Friedman position that the only social responsibility of business was to increase its profits not only unsound but downright anti-social. Friedman would, I suspect, have only one thing to say to the Lopez's and all the top corporate managers in the local CSR movement: "You are stealing from the shareholders!"

Of course, the local Friedmanites couldn't possibly state this charge out loud because many of the local corporations prominent in the CSR scene are doing it with the blessing of the controlling (often, family) interest as in the case of the Lopez's. They couldn't very well be stealing from themselves, now could they? The minority shareholders could make the charge but ,given local corporate dynamics, that would be another whole different story.

The CSR picture isn't perfect, though. Even if I set aside the suspicion of some that the whole CSR thing is one huge PR extravaganza hiding old-fashioned corporate greed, I do have one big concern. Most of the CSR activities proudly narrated by CEOs and chronicled in the glossy materials given out during the increasingly frequent CSR conferences are missing one stakeholder as a beneficiary: the employees. The recent Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility is a typical case in point. A scan of its program does show the mention of "employee" but only in the context of volunteerism. In other words, in local CSR-speak, the employee is mainly a giver, not a receiver.

Now this is a strange situation indeed. A major social responsibility of corporations has always been the provision of meaningful employment so that more people will benefit from the fruits of capitalism to better their lives, build families and help build our great nation. Why the conspicuous non-mention? I know for a fact that many companies are doing great things for their employees. What bothers me is that they don’t talk about it in relation to CSR. Is the employee not part of "society"?

This contrasts with the treatment of the book 1981 "Perspectives on the Social Responsibility of Business" which featured the thoughts of business leaders of the day such as Vicente Jayme, SixtoRoxas and Vicente Paterno. The book featured the Code of Ethics for Business then recently developed by the Bishops-Businessmen's Conference for Human Development. Jayme, reflecting on the importance of the Code wrote that "we can begin asking ourselves the kind of questions which will lead us to the ways by which we can 'humanize' the business firms we run. ... If I believe in respecting the dignity of my worker, how do I bring about the full promise of his potential? How am I promoting his spiritual and intellectual development? His technical competence? How am I making his work more fulfilling and meaningful for him? What kind of working conditions am I providing him? What else can I do to make my personal commitment to his dignity more real?"

I would certainly love to hear managers proudly explain their answers to Jayme's questions. I would grant that getting employees to volunteer for outreach projects surely ennobles them and can even make their work more meaningful. But shouldn't companies be reporting on their "inreach" activities, too? Shouldn't management's concern for their fellowmen begin right at home, as shown by the improvement in the quality of lives of their own employees?

I'm interested to see how the growing outreach-oriented CSR activities of the top companies will eventually reconcile with the growing contractualization, reduction in employee numbers, and creeping overwork in some of the same companies. The Philippine CSR boom is definitely a welcome development. We have moved forward in many ways but, perhaps, we have moved backward in a crucial way. And as long as the quality of work and family life of employees is not given the prominence it deserves, the "S" in CSR is missing a very important piece.