This post was featured in Forbes.com
While corporate social responsibilityis all well and good, you might be one of the people left wondering: so what? Does the cost of corporate volunteering really give your company a return on investment that’s worth it? Sure, you’ve read statistics about employee engagement programs and the difference they make in terms of team morale. You’re just not entirely convinced that there aren’t better ways to get that morale, or even to what degree it translates into a more efficient and profitable business.
If you need a little convincing, Xerox Corporation provides a case study in how a culture of giving back can mean the difference between prosperity and doom.
Giving back, getting back
Around 2000, Xerox was in big trouble. According to Dr. Joseph Cahalan, Xerox’s Vice President of Communications and Social Responsibility, the company was literally “days” away from filing for bankruptcy. Still, employees didn’t defect en masse like rats from a sinking ship. On the contrary, they rallied around the Xerox banner, fighting tooth and nail to keep the company afloat as if it was a local mom and pop shop, not a Fortune 500. Cahalan attributes this to the culture which attracted him to work for Xerox in the first place: “People stayed and made that fight to save the company, in large part because they feel that it’s a company worth saving.”
How did Xerox earn this kind of loyalty?
Cahalan’s own experience offers some insight. “I grew up in a blue collar household, my father was a union man, and I had some bias against large corporations,” he says. Yet, over 40 years after he “sold his soul to the devil” (his words, not ours), Cahalan is still working for Xerox. Most companies dream of that kind of retention, wrestling with how they can attract similarly loyal employees. So what is Xerox’s secret?
In Cahalan’s case it was the then brand new Social Service Leave Program. SSLP allows approved employees the opportunity to work on non-profit, social action projects of their own design and choosing. This is a paid leave of absence that allows Xerox employees the opportunity to make a difference without sacrificing their livelihoods. It’s a model for employee volunteer programs; Xerox empowers employees to make a difference, rather than drafting an army of “voluntold” volunteers or providing limited opportunities pre-selected by the home office. Xerox recognizes that employees are in the best position to maximize community service opportunities.
The reason that Xerox’s employees wanted to save the company had nothing to do photocopiers; it was about the ability that Xerox gives its employees to make a better world. When Xerox first started out with community involvement, it was purely corporate philanthropy of the most traditional - “drop off a check and leave” - variety. A philosophical conversation on the way back from one of these check drops had Xerox looking for ways to not just throw money around via the typical channels of corporate fundraising, but to really sacrifice something and make a difference in the community. This conversation took place between the then president and head of HR, but the idea for SSLP came out of employee committee.
When Xerox began the program, it was loathe to give any kind of employee recognition, internally or otherwise, to participants. Corporate bigwigs saw this as a way to avoid charges that SSLP was only for PR purposes or that the causes were somehow being “used” to Xerox’s benefit. Once again, it was the employees at the grassroots level who convinced corporate management to offer recognition. They saw this as a way to benefit the causes involved, false modesty be damned. Employees returning from SSLP are now treated somewhat like conquering heroes, returning warriors who are living the vision that Xerox has for itself and its employees.
Standing up, being counted
Of course, employees who want to remain low profile may do so as well. But with employees choosing to work tirelessly on causes that affect their families and their communities, most want to raise the profile of the cause if not themselves.
Mary Novick is one employee who took advantage of the Social Service Leave Program. She’s been with Xerox for 15 years, but it was only two years ago that she got involved with Cracker Box Palace, an animal sanctuary in upstate New York. After seeing a mistreated donkey, she partnered with Cracker Box to free the animal, which later gave birth and now lives happily at the sanctuary. Mary spent six months helping Cracker Box streamline its fundraising and daily operations; such experience is relevant to her position as a Process Improvement Specialist. But even when pressed, Novick puts the emphasis on the personal enrichment she got from SSLP. “I smile more,” she says, adding that “I take more time to appreciate acts of kindness. It has a domino effect on the people around me.”
Corporate social responsibility has a moral value. However, it isn’t a net loss that companies should undertake for the sake of doing good only for its own sake. If you think your company is losing out by creating anemployee giving campaign, you’re either doing it wrong or not seeing the bigger picture. Engaging employees in CSR attracts the right employees, keeps them around, involves them at a deeper level of their work and even helps them acquire skills that they might not otherwise learn.
It's good to do good for its own sake, but you don’t have to believe that to see the value of engaging employees to make a greater community impact. In the case of Xerox, it might have made the difference between the company’s life and death.