Summer weather is here and as a human resources manager or a front-line manager you may be asked to be responsible for coordinating social or charitable activities, such as the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s Big Bike, the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life teams, the summer strawberry social or an employee barbecue.
How important is good management of social committees or charitable activities? What are the associated risks and rewards for an organization?
The responsibility for these types of activities might seem lightweight, but the current corporate context places both employee empowerment and corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the forefront of today’s business model. Successful charitable initiatives, sustainable environmental activities and sustainable people practices are said to hold the key to viable organizational growth.
Many current leadership books, corporate strategic plans and human resource leadership forums explore the idea that younger workers want more than a paycheque, and that companies that offer teamwork, recognition, motivation, engagement and employee empowerment will be the winners in the competition for talent.
Employee empowerment is a contested term. At its root in our political and economic heritage is a struggle between classes, a struggle for ownership and power over resources in the workplace. The human resources perspective found in most business books describes empowerment as managers giving employees more responsibility for what they do, including opportunities to make big or small decisions about work commitments and processes. The expectation is that empowered employees will be committed to their employer and this commitment will motivate them to act in the best interests of their organization, as if they were owners. Ownership in the financial sense is not necessary (this would be a political economy definition of empowerment), but only in terms of identifying with the goals and mission of the organization.
It is this definition of employee empowerment that is the focus of current corporate policies. But do employers understand the differences between employee empowerment and corporate social responsibility?
In a previous role as an intern, I was asked to start a social committee to increase employee engagement and empowerment. Company morale was a bit low, the last year’s holiday party had bombed and the employee engagement survey results could have been better.
Despite a slow start, the committee roles and substitute positions were filled by eight volunteers out of eighty possible employees. Those who signed up were positive people who wanted to make difference. The social committee aimed for simple ideas, low cost efforts and a balance of fundraising and “give back” type of events. The committee was responsible to plan a summer BBQ and a holiday party. Employee participation was high, and everyone had fun. Social committee announcements at monthly employee meetings generated laughter and goodwill. On St. Patrick’s Day, many employees participated in activities like eating green cake, wearing green and also trying to go green (eco-conscious) for the day. Later in the summer, a team of employees participated in the Heart and Stroke Big Bike.
Was this employee empowerment? Social committee members received two hours a month paid time to participate on the committee. Six of the employees were hourly employees and two were office employees. On several occasions, some of the hourly employees were not able to attend the scheduled meetings because of production demands. The employees on the social committee were making decisions and acting in ways that promoted team spirit. However, the social committee activities and decisions didn’t actually relate to decisions about their work processes, work production, scheduling or client relationships. Despite the committee’s success at improving employee morale and “giving back” via charity fundraisers, in terms of the ownership and outcomes of the means and processes of production, this really is not empowerment.
Certainly, there is great value in hosting events to bring employees together, improve morale and raise money for good causes, and in encouraging employees to do the organizing, but do not simply assume that by doing so you are empowering your employees in their work. Today’s empowered employees have greater control over how they perform their work and arrange their days, not just over whether they participate in a charity fundraiser, no matter how much fun they have or how much they appreciate the effort. And employees know the difference.
This continued disparity between real empowerment and, for lack of a better word, “fake,” empowerment or shallow CSR efforts, makes these types of initiatives vulnerable to negative exposure, particularly via social media and social media campaigns, both in the workplace and in public. Social committee events and corporate social responsibility initiatives have the potential to go viral, often for positive reasons, but more often for negative ones. Blips and blunders regarding inclusiveness, inappropriate behaviour at events and especially real or perceived hypocrisy on the part of businesses about corporate social responsibility (among many other things) can have lasting impact on public and employee perception of an organization. The social media–social movement–social change paradigm, while not predictable in its outcomes, can be very powerful.
That said, as the HR manager or manager responsible for the social committee, consider this advice when it comes to planning a summer barbecue, charitable or environmental initiative. Be genuine and be careful. Ensure participating employees are treated fairly and inclusively and ensure that all involved are familiar with your organization’s work place code of conduct, social media policies and workplace violence and harassment policies. Finding social, environmental and charitable activities that are a great fit with your organization is even more challenging than finding a bathing suit that has the right fit!
Have a great summer!
Marcia Scheffler, M.A., CHRP Candidate
Human Resources Generalist
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