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How Does Your Company Look at Corporate Responsibility?

I was at AsianMBA's Annual Leadership Conference last week as a panelist for a discussion on corporate social responsibility. The questions presented to the panel were multifold but drove essential a central argument: What is the business case for CSR and why does it matter?

The other panelists included Campbell Soup's VP for CSR, Dave Stangis; Chhavi Ghuliani from consulting firm Business for Social Responsibility (BSR); Grace Chiang, cofounder and managing director of Shanghai-based philanthropic advisory firm Social Venture Group; with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Associate Assistant Administrator Raul Soto moderating.

Key observations from the panel:

A Business Case for CSR

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CNBC.com

While the panel discussed several other topics, discussion was undoubtedly dominated by Michigan professor Aneel Karnani's recent Wall Street Journal piece, in which he argued that it is naïve to expect businesses to pursue corporate responsibility over profitability.

Chiang, who has significant international work experience, opened the discussion by identifying the difference between implicit (issues related to the local laws and the license to operate) and explicit (volunteerism, philanthropy, etc.) CSR. Referring to Karnani, she pointed out that global markets are transitioning from implicit to explicit corporate responsibility and stated his arguments neglect this shift.

Stangis offered the opinion that social responsibility isn’t as simple as a choice between business and social good, but finding that balance of conducting business in a socially responsible way. And Ghuliani offered a global viewpoint, pointing out that the US market was miles behind others in embracing CSR and suggesting that corporate America has years of catch up ahead of it.

But What is CSR? And Why Does it Matter to Me?

An eye opening comment from an attendee became the basis of my comments on the panel. He told me that his company had set up a CSR department but because it wasn’t a part of the diversity team or HR, employees tended to view it as an obscure and vapid section of the company. In other words, he had no idea what CSR involved and how it was relevant to what he did.

Discussing Vault's recent Job hunting in CSRseries in context of this comment, I asked the attendees to connect their personal and professional choices. Here's a gist of what I said:

"We all make personal decisions to eat organic, buy green, etc. Now it is time to transition this choice to the professional space and ask questions like how important your employer's business model is to you, their efforts in the community, how they look at profitability and what standards they follow regarding transparent accountability."

For the recruiters and HR practitioners in the audience, this seemed to hit home. Several came up to me later to discuss their companies' approach to sustainability. The common refrain—and unfortunately the prevalent disconnect in the market—was this: The C-suite sees corporate responsibility as a linear departmental function involving their philanthropic and community involvement. They admitted that the idea that CSR is more about the company's decision making culture and how they approach strategy, brand management, marketing as well as issues of procurement, supply chain and financial analysis was never addressed.

For management and senior leadership, this clearly means committing to a company-wide cultural shift. And one that becomes a tangible part of our professional mindset, not an afterthought.

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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 diversity practices and sustainability, and how they translate into recruitment and strategic development at companies. Connect with her on Twitter @VaultCSR.

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