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Why Execs Should Care About CSR

Wednesday, 19 Jan 2011 | 11:31 AM ET

I'm peeved.

AAGAMIA | Iconica | Getty Images

When a fellow attendee at an event hosted to laud women empowerment in the workplace expresses reservations with corporate social responsibility (CSR), there is a problem.

It wasn't that the senior executive in question was indifferent to CSR.

It just didn’t translate into strategic development for her quite like women empowerment did.

She went on to vociferously reemphasize that there is a very real strategic business case for women empowerment; but she was outraged by my claim that CSR had the same strategic business case.

(The event featured many senior-level professionals—mostly women, both on the main panel and in attendance—from some of the country's "Best to Work for" employers.)

So I swiftly steered our conversation to an issue that she clearly believed in—women leadership—and suggested that what she was so strongly propagating was nothing but a small aspect of CSR. But it took a few minutes and a lot of translation.

When she enthused about her employer's record of championing diversity and women leadership, I saw my opportunity: I explained that diversity, women advancement, employee engagement, environmental responsibility and transparent corporate governance are all parts of the same whole—albeit a heavily jargonized one.

And here's why I am peeved.

Writing about CSR every day of my working life, I am surrounded by people who get it. But hearing such responses—often filled with complete outrage—continues to remind me that the informed remain few and far between.

The sheer lack of understanding among corporate America's senior leadership then becomes the logical target for my frustration.

Is the real problem incomprehension? The executive I spoke to has been working on promoting women leadership in the workplace for years, maybe even decades. So she doesn’t lack understanding.

Is the real problem then context?

No one in all these years connected her strong belief with the main tenets of CSR. No one effectively explained how her priorities can align with the bigger picture and how corporate social responsibility relates to a diverse and engaged workforce.

Like PwC's CSR Leader Shannon Schuyler admitted in a recent interview:

"I had to realize that I needed to accept that some people weren't going to come to the table or invest in this, from a personal or a business standpoint just based off of my perspective alone. I needed to create four or five or, in some cases, seven different business cases for why each one of these people should come to the table. As long as I could get these different stakeholders engaged based on individualized perspectives of the value-add, they all would come."

Contextualization clearly is key. But is senior leadership up for these conversations?

Aman Singh is the Corporate Responsibility Editor at Vault.com and the author of Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company. She is a New York University alum and previously wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Her area of work includes corporate social responsibility, diversity practices and sustainability, and how they translate into recruitment and strategic development at companies. Connect with her on Twitter @VaultCSR.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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