In the last two decades, scholars and professionals have increasingly realized the strategic importance of investing in CSR initiatives so as to improve the relationships between corporations and their various stakeholder groups. Despite the great amount of attention paid to external stakeholders’ engagement and perceptions, CSR programs are most effective when employees become leading enactors while their employers play as motivating or facilitating enablers (Chen & Hung-Baesecke, 2014). Employees’ participation in a corporation’s CSR initiatives is essential to its long-term business success. Employee CSR participation reflects a company’s culture or values associated with giving back to community or doing good for society. It helps persuade external stakeholders to trust a company’s CSR actions are rooted in its fundamental value system rather than a consequence of external pressure it faces. Desirably, CSR initiatives should be sustainable and co-developed or co-constructed with a company’s internal and external stakeholders. For instance, reduction of energy consumption can only be accomplished through employees’ realization of its significance and their actual behavioral changes in job performance. Prior CSR studies have built the connections between employees’ involvement in CSR activities and increased job satisfaction (Kundu & Gahlawat, 2015), organizational commitment (Chen & Hung-Baesecke, 2014), organizational citizenship behavior, identification with employers (O’Connor, Paskewitz, Jorgenson, & Rick, 2016), employee morale, self-development (Chen & Hung-Baesecke, 2014), and organization-public relationship outcomes (Dhanesh, 2014).
As reviewed in Chen and Hung-Baesecke’s (2014) study, previous literature identified several key drivers for employees’ participation in CSR at various levels (i.e., activity, organizational and personal). A corporation’s CSR activities may lead to active employee participation when employees perceive them as being aligned with corporate culture, co-created and co-enacted by employees, implemented with employee-run committees or task forces, accompanied by effective and genuine internal communication and leadership support, and when employees feel individual needs and interests are satisfied and perceive few barriers to participation.
Adding into the extant research on the drivers of employee CSR participation, in recent years researchers have begun to emphasize the critical role of CSR communication strategies (Cho, Furey, & Mohr, 2016) and employees’ attributions of their employers’ CSR motives (Vlachos, Panagopoulos, & Rapp, 2013). To understand and satisfy the expectations of its target audiences, a corporation should effectively communicate about how it has been acting socially responsible (Cho et al., 2016). In previous public relations literature, scholars have proposed two primary CSR communication strategies: (1) the informing strategy and (2) the interacting strategy. When applied to CSR communication with employees, the informing strategy involves providing employees with coherent and updated CSR information to increase corporate visibility, promote their understanding of CSR initiatives, and enhance trust from them. It focuses on communicating CSR as a shared concern between a corporation and its employees, providing employees with visible evidence, connecting CSR efforts with corporate business, and reporting CSR results, but not necessarily expecting feedback from its employees. The interacting strategy, however, highlights a corporation’s efforts to engage their employees in formulating CSR plans and implementing CSR programs strategically. It emphasizes open communication, a co-creation process throughout, and the cultivation of a partnership with their employees in doing all kinds of corporate good deeds. Based on a content analysis of 46 corporate Facebook pages from Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies,” Cho et al. (2016) found that corporations unfortunately employed an informing strategy more often than an interacting strategy when communicating CSR activities.
Communicating CSR is a very challenging job for corporations—It may generate stakeholder skepticism (i.e., greenwashing) of a corporation’s intentions for conducting its CSR programs (Vlachos et al., 2013). In line with growing skepticism over corporate CSR motives, scholars argued for the importance of investigating employees’ attributions of their employers’ CSR motives and linking such attributions to their ensuing behaviors when assessing employee participation in CSR-related activities and their overall performance at work (i.e., job engagement). Researchers have proposed a two-dimensional model accounting for organizational motivations underlying CSR initiatives: Symbolic (i.e., perceiving CSR as greenwashing or an instrument for glossing a corporate image; “self-serving”) vs. Substantial (i.e., motivated by a genuine desire to help a target audience or stakeholder group; “other-serving”) (Donia & Sirsly, 2016). In addition, digital platforms (i.e., corporate websites and social media platforms) enable corporations to set and communicate their CSR agenda without being modified by traditional gatekeepers (Cho et al., 2016, p. 4). Digital platforms also problematize the traditional one-to-one or one-to-many communication channels. Rather, it facilitates a model of any-to-any and many-to-many communication (Cho et al., 2016, p. 4). More research is thus needed to examine the use of digital platforms in employee CSR communication.
Based on the review of previous literature, I’d like to propose some takeaways for researchers to consider as potential directions for future research and for employee communication managers to think more about as related to employee-focused CSR communication:
More research is needed to further investigate the drivers and consequences of employee participation in corporate CSR initiatives and examine how the findings can contribute to both PR research and practice, for instance, employee recruitment, retention and job and social media engagement.
The key components of CSR strategies that are integral to an organization’s communication effectiveness and business success include: (1) the informing vs. interacting CSR communication strategies and (2) employees’ attributions of corporate CSR motives: symbolic vs. substantial. It’s a must for corporations to strengthen employee communication so as to engage employees in CSR strategic planning and implementing, increase employee trust, and enhance their understanding of corporations’ other-serving CSR motives.
Employees should be encouraged to become active CSR ambassadors on both internal and external social media and passionate leaders and participants in CSR activities.
Management support is essential to everything, from CSR strategies, CSR job engagement (i.e., cognitive, emotional, and physical engagement), social media communication, to a corporation’s long-term CSR and business success.
Hua Jiang, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Department of Public Relations, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Chen, Y.-R. R., & Hung-Baesecke, C.-J. F. (2014). Examining the internal aspects of corporate social responsibility (CSR): Leader behavior and employee CSR participation. Communication Research Reports, 31(2), 210-220.
Cho, M., Furey, L. D., & Mohr, T. (2016). Communicating corporate social responsibility on
social media: Strategies, stakeholders, and public engagement on corporate Facebook. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 1–18.
Dhanesh, G. S. (2014). CSR as organization–employee relationship management strategy: A case study of socially responsible information technology companies in India. Management Communication Quarterly, 28(1), 130-149.
Donia, M. B. L., & Sirsly, C.-A. T. (2016). Determinants and consequences of employee attributions of corporate social responsibility as substantive or symbolic. European Management Journal, 34, 232-242.
Kundu, S. C., & Gahlawat, N. (2015). Effects of CSR focused HRM on employees’ satisfaction: A study of Indian organizations. Journal of Strategic Human Resource Management, 4(2), 42-48.
O’Connor, A., Paskewitz, E. A., Jorgenson, D. A., & Rick, J. M. (2016). How changes in work structure influence employees’ perceptions of CSR: Millionaire managers and locked-out laborers. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 44(1), 40-59.
Vlachos, P. A., Panagopoulos, N. G., & Rapp, A. A. (2013). Feeling good by doing good: Employee CSR-induced attributions, job satisfaction, and the role of charismatic leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 577-588.