For CSR to be truly effective, things that go well, and those that do not, must be accounted for and measured equally.
By Adrian Henriques, Visiting Professor of Accountability and CSR, Middlesex University Business School
Review of the book, The Dark Side 2: Critical Cases on the Downside of Business
The importance of a rounded look at CSR cannot be over-estimated. If CSR is to be more than a PR programme, then it is necessary to examine how things have gone badly as well as how things have gone well. For academic research and teaching, it is vital. There is no shortage of positive case studies out there, but there is a dearth of critical ones. In 2009 Raufflet and Mills produced the first volume of Dark Side, containing case studies that illustrated how things can go wrong between businesses and society. Now, four years later, here is another volume of critical case studies.
Do a Few Bad Apples Turn the Whole Bushel?
The book targets a number of mainstream companies and directly challenges the idea that any problem with business is simply a result of ‘bad apples’: the idea that while a company is inherently good, its reputation can be ruined by the behaviour of a few rogue individuals within it. And that thinking is often extended to companies as a whole: most companies are good, but there will occasionally arise one which is bad all through – perhaps like Enron – this gives business as a whole a bad name, though most are perfectly sound. In reality, of course, the corporate world is neither wholly good nor wholly bad. The need is for a more rounded view, without which the full benefit companies can bring could remain forever unrealized. So given the dominance of wholly positive case studies out there, this book is part of a necessary corrective.
Dark Side 2 covers community and environment, human rights and ethics issues. In all there are 14 case studies in this volume covering a wide range of issues. We hear for example about how Shell in Ireland was capable of atrocious community relations – reminding us that poor CSR is as much a feature of the developed world as elsewhere.
In looking at the CSR projects of Vedanta, the importance of community activities being meaningfully connected to the business of the company is highlighted. In the Vedanta case study, they seemed completely unrelated to the core activities of the company or the damage that their projects would cause. Not surprisingly, they were without much positive effect.
Human Rights Case Studies
We also hear about how Kraft Food’s policies were completely different, and arbitrarily unpleasant, in Argentina compared to that in its US operations. The attitude of the company management to concerns about the H1N1 virus were brutally oppressive in Argentina while being tolerant and concerned in the US.
There is an account of the Bhopal tragedy that sets out in detail how and why the disaster happened and how the companies involved have evaded responsibility. Given the scale and continuing significance of the disaster, this is a useful and important story to have.
And we hear about hacking at the News of the World in which reporters commissioned illegal means to gain access to private information. The evolution of this case illustrates well how what the management were keen initially to present as a few ‘bad apples’ turned out to be systematic and endemic in the newspaper and led to the company eventually being closed down.
One of the more unusual case studies concerns the effects of drug company sponsorship on the ability of clinicians to make decisions in the interests of their patients. It describes the brave efforts of a doctor insisting on the right treatment for patients caught up in a drug trial.
Unions are to Corporations as CSR is to PR?
One of the recurring themes of the case studies is the inclusion of unionization issues and anti-union activities by companies. Labour issues are often excluded from ‘CSR’ – perhaps in an effort to confine CSR to issues, such as philanthropy, that can be kept firmly under management control. But of course the way staff are treated is an essential and central element of corporate responsibility. This book puts the issue firmly back on the agenda.
Each case study is presented in a similar way with background material providing the economic or company context, although sometimes this uniform format appears to crowd out a more detailed analysis of the case at issue. At times the demands of providing a similar template to each case study means that some of what is provided has only marginal relevance to a particular case study.
What the book lacks, or perhaps—given it is simply a collection of case studies—points to the need for, is a systematic analysis of why poor impacts and bad CSR happen. That is a large and crucial issue for which this book can be a stimulus and source of evidence. So if the study of business is to work its way out of an often unproductively sycophantic attitude, this book will be a welcome resource.
About the Author:
Adrian Henriques (@adrianhenriques) is an independent adviser on corporate responsibility, social accountability and sustainability, and Professor of Accountability and CSR at Middlesex University. He was a member of the Global Reporting Initiative Steering Committee, is a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants’ Sustainability Forum and Chair of the UK mirror committee for ISO 26000.
Henriques' ebook Making the Most of Standards: The Sustainability Professional's Guide is a part of a series of short sustainable business ebooks published by DoSustainability and offers practical solutions to the challenges posed in this article. You can read more about this book and order it online here.