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Is there a connection between employee engagement and shareholder value?

Several similar questions came up in a recent webinar I facilitated, held in partnership with Profits 4 Purpose with guests Philips and Drexel University. While the question doesn’t have a linear answer – as is often the case with sustainability – it did take us through quite a conversation on connecting engagement with value, how CSR strategies affect business performance, the whole conundrum of measurement as well as what the latest research suggests.

Daniel Korschun, Assistant Professor and Fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at Drexel University, led the conversation by sharing some of his research with our audience.

“We’re moving into a new phase …since the 1950s we have had a debate about whether more CSR is better than less. While I don’t think this debate has been completely settled, there is general agreement among most practitioners that the core issue today is how we do it, not the quantity. That means we need to concentrate on effectiveness, which is where I have focused my research,” he started.

Employee Engagement: All About Signals

Employees are paying attention to CSR, he said.

And they notice when managers or customers support the company’s CSR initiatives.  When they notice this support, they are more likely to develop CSR and business performance“feelings of membership with a company.” In its most powerful form, we may begin to hear things like “I am an IBMer or a UPSer.” This feeling of membership then translates into a whole host of measurable outcomes like job performance, intent to stay in the job, or intent to volunteer.

For example, Korschun said he finds that people who feel this sense of membership are 87 percent more likely than others to be among the top performers of their company. And these effects hold even after controlling for pay satisfaction, personality traits, tenure, and work experience. The big lesson then?

  • Make CSR an open secret! “The more people who are discussing your behavior, the better.”
  • Have upper management act as champions: “If people don’t feel that management is aligned with your CSR strategy, impact will be muted. Executives don’t need to dictate CSR from the ivory tower but employees must know definitively that their leaders are on the same page, and are committed to social responsibility.”
  • Encourage contagion across stakeholders: “Engage customers in the same CSR programs as employees? Programs that get customers and employees to join forces (especially on volunteering sites) can create a bond…and that sort of contagion can lead to both happy employees and happy customers.”

Philip Cares: Formalizing Responsibility

Melanie Michaud, Senior Manager for Internal Communications with Philips North America took the baton from Daniel to evidence his data and research with how the practice and implementation of employee engagement maps out across a corporation. Emphasizing that Philips USA did not have a process in place till 2010 to vet requests and manage engagement across the company. “It was sporadic and led by employees who cared about various causes,” she said.

After several acquisitions, the company realized they needed a more formal process to align all its community development work with its business and employee base. That led to Philips Cares, through which, the company focuses on environment, education and health.

With tremendous uptick in the number of volunteers [over 8,000 volunteers] and donations in the 15 months since the program launched, Michaud highlighted the following keys to the success of Philips Philips caresCares – crucial for those managing relatively new programs or on the verge of launching one:

  • Do your research
  • Have a clear vision
  • Engage leadership
  • Have a volunteer tracking mechanism
  • Align with nonprofit partners
  • Emphasize local champions
  • Have consistent program branding
  • Engage in storytelling
  • Give employees a voice
  • Walk the talk

Setting a Global Strategy With Local Impact

So how does Philips ensure its CSR strategy is global in scope while local enough to support its communities?

That’s something we’re continually challenged with. We’re always tying everything back to our vision and mission of improving lives through innovation. We’re also doing some research now about rolling out a program like Philip Cares globally. In some areas there is greater interest than others and we’re currently working out how that will all work out,” Michaud responded.

One of the questions that came up during the webinar was around the survey Philips uses to seek feedback and make changes to its program. Emphasizing that the survey was a work in progress, Michaud said questions revolved around identifying causes, target audiences, types of volunteering activities as well as a bunch of open-ended questions for more elaborate feedback.

Practice vs. Software: Connecting Volunteerism With Impact

For Jason Burns, CEO of Profits 4 Purpose, the task was to connect Korschun’s research and Michaud’s practical perspective to how companies can best measure and track CSR and employee engagement activities. “We’re focused on helping companies make employee engagement simple, innovative and relational,” he started.

What are the key components to capture their attention? Burns summarized his comments in three neat categories:

  • Inspiring vision with easy execution: “We see a lot of companies starting with the end goal in mind, asking employees to focus on tracking…that’s less than inspiring. As human beings, we desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves so its important we start with a vision.”
  • Measuring impact: “Excel kills impact…how can we launch a strategy and review it for impact in real time and in alignment with employee engagement, mission and partners? Can we solve a specific problem that fits within the mission of a business? Can we cast a ‘what if’ scenario for employees to be motivated, to make a difference and get involved in a real easy and seamless way?”
  • Sharing a compelling story: “You’ve executed the strategy, and achieved great impact but why is it important? The most powerful piece for an employee when they volunteer is being part of that impact firsthand. The next powerful piece for those who might not be on the ground is communication, the story. It goes beyond the numbers.”

While the P4P platform helps companies do all of the above in one centralized place, what stood out was the fact that it also leverages the data into meaningful stories, disclosure commitments and  p4p_webinar_5filings. As Burns explained, “We saw companies that had the vision but were having difficulty making the management seamless with vendors, contractors and excel sheets. Things were duct taped and often a nightmare and we wanted to open that up to make the process productive and inspiring for all involved.”

Connecting The Dots Between Engagement & Shareholder Value…

But Jason’s iteration of execution versus measurement and reporting brought us back to a core question we began the panel with: how are companies like Phillips connecting the dots between volunteerism, engagement, retention and business growth?

“In terms of definitive links all the way to shareholder value, we have research connecting the steps of a CSR program all the way through. There is, however, no one study out there that links the end point with any one of the steps along the way. My research connects job performance with CSR and others have linked that to shareholder value. So while the connections are there, there is no one study that we can point to,” offered Korschun.

For Philips, it’s still to be determined, said Michaud.

“It is still a bit fragmented but we have moved from a theory to a practical emphasis on measurement and tracking. And the research being conducted is definitely encouraging, albeit complex,” added Burns, highlighting a trend we’ve been seeing on CSRwire as well where researchers are now, finally, being able to grab data on voluntary disclosures and link the connections between measurement, the various threads of sustainability and the question of value.

…Regardless of the Economic Climate…

What does the research then say about the impact of CSR programs on shareholder perspective and behavior irrespective of the economic climate? [Audience question]

While Korschun said he wasn’t aware of any studies that have looked at the influence of economic climate on how CSR drives value, “we generally find that for customers, the effects are clearest when CSR and employee engagementmost other product features are at parity. This suggests that CSR might become a little less important for consumers during a recession, when price becomes more critical.”

He added: “However, for employees, the company is a big part of their identity. So as long as a person feels fairly secure in their job, CSR should still have a similar effect. Putting this together, I would conjecture that ROI might drop a bit overall during a recession, but the drop would be uneven across stakeholders.”

…And Company Performance

“The weight of the evidence in academic studies suggests that there is a small positive effect of overall CSR on overall company performance. In my view, each company will have programs that are more and less effective. Since employees can express their commitment to the company in many ways, it is very difficult to put an ROI figure on any single program. The best way to measure it is usually to choose a couple of outcomes that are critical to shareholder value and then examine the link between CSR program(s) and these outcomes,” Korschun offered.

Final word on the erstwhile ROI of social contributions and impact?

For Michaud, this is a toss-up.

“We have some of the basics in place about measurement but I think qualitative measures are as significant. They’re really the next level of ROI. Of course, media stories help as well but we’re this is a discussion that is really ongoing for us.”

“A lot of companies are surveying employees and getting positive results. Now we need to work on finding the stories of impact,” added Burns while Korschun recommended systemic thinking:

I ‘d like to recommend [to companies] that they start with the goals. If one of your business challenges is employee retention, start with that and work backwards. Ask yourselves what is the right program that can have social/environmental impact and create business value at the same time?

Download the slides.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary sectionTalkback on June 25, 2013.