Corporate Social Responsibility Comes Home

“Do not hold back in what you do. Let the Spirit burn in you. Work hard for the Lord.”  
–Romans 12:11 The Message

Years ago, while working on my Ph.D., I wrote a research paper on corporate social responsibility. I learned a lot about the history of the field. A couple of years later, I began my dissertation, which involved the emerging field of organizational spirituality. While diligently preparing my theoretical background materials, I began to get an acute sense of déjà vu.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) may simply be defined as “discretionary actions undertaken by companies intended to advance social issues” (Richardson, Welker, & Hutchinson, 1999). And it can be traced back to at least the 1930s, when famed law professor Merrick Dodd wrote, For Whom are Managers Trustees? In 1954, a stockholder sued Standard Oil for donating to Princeton University, alleging misuse of his funds. When the court upheld management’s right to engage in philanthropy, a movement was sparked. By the 1960s, several “five percent clubs” had emerged, comprised of businesses who pledged to donate a minimum of five percent of their pre-tax earnings to charity.

The movement was not driven by academics, politicians, or the media, but by business owners and managers acting on their own consciences. The scholarly world then reacted, entering the debate. Most famously, in 1970 Milton Friedman (1912-2006) responded in a New York Times Magazine article, stating the only social responsibility of business was to maximize profits, and everything else was “collectivist doctrine… and fundamentally subversive.”[i] Subsequent to that article four decades of research with ensuing argument and hundreds of studies conducted.

Today, the debate almost seems inane. Corporate social responsibility is widely accepted as a business strategy, and few doubt its ability to increase profits. Studies have shown socially responsible companies are more appealing to customers, more attractive to investors, and more able to recruit top talent. In fact, instead of questioning whether socially responsible behavior aids profitability, pundits now question the true motives of companies who pursue it.

Fast forward a few decades and the same pattern can be found in the paradigm known as organizational spirituality.[ii] Put simply, it is the ability for an employee to openly live out their spiritual identity, finding higher meaning and purpose in their work. Similar to CSR, the spirituality movement in organizations emerged first from popular circles, where it gained steam until scholars were forced to respond. Several demographic and business trends converged in the 1980s, creating intense interest in spirituality in nontraditional settings. Today, it is not uncommon for businesses to employ chaplains, draw lessons from the Bible, or even send employees on vision quests.

Playing the modern antagonist, renowned writer Tom Peters was quoted in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press stating, “Let’s leave the Bible, the Koran, and facile talk of spiritual leaders at home” (Beal, 2001, p. C1). The scholarly response is in full swing. Studies have since demonstrated links between organizational spirituality and job satisfaction, retention, leadership effectiveness, motivation, and performance. I am part of that research effort, and now tend to think of organizational spirituality as simply CSR turned inwards. I am also proud to be part of the DeVoe School of Business, which models organizational spirituality every day!

In 2006, Kent Rhodes sought to engage the conversation when suggesting six characteristics of a model for spirituality in the workplace. Sound familiar? Are these building blocks evident in your organization?

The six components presented here as building blocks toward considering a model of workplace spirituality serve as a partial framework for engaging in a broader conversation of spirituality’s place and influence in Western business culture.

  1. Emphasizes sustainability.
  2. Values contribution.
  3. Prizes creativity.
  4. Cultivates inclusion.
  5. Develops principles.
  6. Promotes vocation. (Rhoades, 2006)[iii]

[i] Friedman, M. (1970, September 13). The social responsibility of business to increase its profits. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/libertarians/issues/friedman-soc-resp-business.html

[ii] WORKPLACE SPIRITUALITY has continued to gain acceptance as a topic of study in business schools across the country, presumably with application to practice within organizations. Though initially the topic of spirituality in the workplace may have been viewed as a passing fad, it now seems to have reached trend status. Management textbooks routinely include sections about “workplace spirituality”….

Kent Rhoades (2006)
Six Components of a Model for Workplace Spirituality

[iii] Rhodes, K. (2006). Six components of a model for workplace spirituality. Graziado Business Review, 9(2). Retrieved from https://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/six-components-of-a-model-for-workplace-spirituality/

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