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Social Responsibility in a Polarized World

Most organizations want to be socially responsible and many people want to work for a socially responsible organization. The challenge is that political views have become so polarized that almost any issue the organization supports will potentially be opposed by a significant number of employees. Even something as seemingly unproblematic as promoting the use of vaccines in Africa will be seen by some as abhorrent.


In addition to the difficulty of choosing social responsibility programs that don’t risk alienating a significant segment of employees; CEOs are coming under pressure to make public statements on political issues. In one case, a young employee suggested that if he didn’t make a statement around a charged pollical issue then he was in effect supporting fascism. No matter what side the CEO took on the issue (even if he took no side at all) he would come under criticism.

There are two tactics for dealing with this new world of social responsibility:

  • Moving forward carefully and with a clear vision

  • Putting social responsibilities decisions directly into the hands of employees

Moving forward carefully and with a clear vision

It is almost always a good idea for companies to be clear about what values they hold. Companies like Chick-fil-A and Patagonia have strong views that drive their social responsibility agenda—views that not everyone will share. Most organizations adopt a more middle-of-the-road policy—and that is fine too. Whatever the policy is chosen, it’s a good idea to be clear about what it is.

Just as important as being clear about your stance on social responsibility, it’s important to act with caution. We all tend to live in our own media bubbles leading us to feel that everyone, or at least everyone who matters, agrees with us on certain issues. It’s necessary for leaders in charge of social responsibility programs to seek out diverse political opinions so that they don’t naively wander into a controversial issue which will alienate employees or customers.

Putting social responsibilities decisions directly into the hands of employees

No matter how clearly and carefully leaders handling social responsibility pursue their mission they will come under pressure from activists inside and outside the company demanding they take on certain causes. One way to sidestep the pressure, while giving employees a chance to pursue a social agenda they care about, is to pass social responsibility decisions directly into the hands of employees.

The basic mechanism is this:

  • If a certain number of employees sign-up to support a cause then, after just a little vetting to ensure it’s not a particularly bad idea, the company will give the approval to proceed

  • Approved causes will be shown on the company’s internal social responsibility website.

  • Employees can donate money to the causes they support, and the company will match the donation at a certain percentage (e.g. 50%).

The magic of this is that it allows the company to support what employees support without taking sides on controversial issues. If some employees want to donate funds to a non-profit aimed at interplanetary travel, then they can do so and be supported by the company. If employees don’t want to give to that cause then that’s their decision, not the company’s.

Wrapping up

Companies need to recognize the increasing danger that highly polarized views will lead to social responsibility programs that alienate employees rather than engage them. An obvious step is to be extra clear and extra careful in choosing which issues to support. A less obvious but more powerful step is to let employees decide what to support and demonstrate that the support is real through their own donations. The company demonstrates its support for issues employees care about by matching some percent of the donations. This begins to sound a lot like bringing democracy to social responsibility, and that is probably one idea we can all get behind.


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