Business is developing real social values – passing trend, protective instinct or what?

Business is developing real social values - passing trend, protective instinct or what? The emergence of social values in business is no passing trend. It is a response to the current growth pattern that is putting people and ethics back at the heart of business, says Dominique Ménard.

Business focus on social values is a movement that could reinstate society’s trust in companies.

The idea of corporate values was integrated into managerial practice long ago. But the financial crisis has brought fresh doubts about the role of business and what it does in civil society as well as a fresh focus on values.

Corporate values started out as professional values – market-winning values such as customer satisfaction and product quality – then began to encompass behavioural and interpersonal values, such as accountability and sharing. They are now being extended to include so-called ‘societal’ or social values, like diversity, job preservation and the conservation of natural resources.

The economic and social uncertainty we have faced in the last decade has triggered a serious divide – a lack of trust between civil society and business.

What’s changed?

Business growth is no longer simply accepted – People are demanding that companies justify the choices they make and the means they deploy to achieve their aims. People want businesses to be accountable to the whole of society for the way in which they achieve growth. People want business to offset their economic and financial imperatives against responsible values and to balance short-term goals with sustainable development.

A serious incident triggers serious questions – Any business affected by a serious incident will today face questioning from the public about its governance, risk management and the effective implementation of its corporate values. The interdependence of economic players and their fragility have become tangible realities.

CSR has an impact on financial performance – There is widespread acceptance of a causal link between the practice of corporate social responsibility and financial performance over the medium and long term. All credit rating agencies now factor so-called ‘non-financial’ elements into their models for assessing business performance.

Over half of the 40 largest listed companies in France, for example, now index part of executive pay to non-financial criteria, compared to just four in 2006.

Communications evolving to build trust – Corporate communications have begun to take account of this stakeholder expectation. Business communications are starting to reconcile corporate performance with social responsibilities – companies’ ability to attract talent, motivate staff, build their customer base and reassure investors depends on it.

Get talking

So are these expectations simply a passing trend? Or are they telling us that business is entering a new stage of development, in which companies create value over the longer term, both for themselves and for their stakeholders?

These are questions for the board, whose main duty is to secure the sustainable, long-term growth of the business and reconcile the company’s economic and financial objectives with its social role.

Corporate values and their effective expression in behaviour and practice, or their integration into the business strategy, are still rarely discussed by business directors. So the board’s first job may just be to talk about them!

Does management know what’s at stake?

Many businesses do translate social values into concrete, often high-visibility, philanthropy – business foundations have been proliferating and corporate support for humanitarian work is increasing.

While these may be worthy, they tend to express a limited social commitment as they have little or no connection to the business’s long-term goals and strategy. When the financial crisis hit, budgets earmarked for social projects were, tellingly, among the first to be slashed.

This kind of philanthropy no longer satisfies stakeholder expectations or business needs. Values need to play a new role as an essential management instrument that can enhance the organisation’s culture, humanise it and give meaning to its actions in ways that support long-term financial performance.

Focus on values: the benefits?

  • Support competiveness
  • Underpin the quality and consistency of decisions taken throughout the group
  • Enable better anticipation and management of risk
  • Attract talent
  • Motivate and retain staff
  • Increase productivity and innovation
  • Build a positive public image
  • Reassure investors

Building social values into the company’s development strategy may finally lead to new, stronger growth models. Lyonnaise des Eaux, for example, says that its growth model changed as a result of its sustainable development drive. They no longer strive to sell as much water as possible, but aim to preserve the resource, and some of their pricing systems are no longer based on volume.

In the current environment, it’s hard to see how the board of directors can afford to disregard corporate values or their application across the business.

Values: from inaction to innovation

Taking action on social responsibility

The selection of values, validation of objectives and initiatives, and assessment of the company’s maturity often fall to the board’s ethics committee or sustainable development committee, if these exist.

 

How can boards help the focus on chosen values?

  • Talk to people or ask for a staff survey to see if the values expressed in corporate communications are really experienced and shared.
  • Make sure that failure to comply with these values elicits appropriate and widely published sanctions.
  • Question whether decisions submitted for board approval are at one with the company’s values.
  • Make sure that key performance indicators and managers’ performance targets identify adherence to key values.
  • Analyse business practices and benchmark performance against your peers.

The attention given by the board to corporate values is in itself a first step in moving from ‘assertion’ to integration. But turning values into behaviour and practice requires considerable input from the governance bodies that set the tone from the top – it can take time!

The aim of the change process is to concentrate the corporate culture on the chosen values so that good behaviours are not a matter of observing rules – they come from shared values and life principles.

Convincing stakeholders, especially shareholders, of the sincerity of these values and their long-term relevance is a crucial responsibility for the board – one that requires cutting edge communications. But those who do explain their social ambitions clearly, measure progress and make the links with strategic choices and performance will build trust in their organisation. Trust bridges the divide between business and civil society. And that’s a platform for sustainable growth in anyone’s book.

Dominique Ménard
Dominique Ménard
Partner at PwC