Stephen Howard explains how responsibility is increasingly at the heart of businesses, but they must get better at sharing ideas for social change
Responsible business is more than how a company delivers philanthropic programmes, or corporate social responsibility, it’s really about the fundamentals of how a business operates - how it makes its money and how it treats the planet, employees and suppliers as it operates and grows.
Having been chief executive of Business in the Community throughout the financial crash and subsequent recovery I’ve seen a renewed appetite from business to make responsible behaviour central to business operations. This doesn’t mean just creating a department tucked behind the marketing or HR team.
These businesses are not just making a token response to a post-crash world – but rather they understand that they have a role in addressing the most pressing societal and environmental issues and that a positive relationship between business and society is mutually beneficial because prosperity is good for all of us.
Responsible businesses are actively building meaningful connections that go beyond the annual fundraiser, or corporate sponsorship, because they understand that all the carbon offsetting, volunteering or award wins in the world won’t offset bad behaviour occurring elsewhere in a business.
There are some strong examples of businesses who are truly integrating a different way of operating into their business models. Lloyds Banking Group’s Helping Britain Prosper plan not only recognises the mutual dependence between business and society but also integrates this thinking into its core business strategy.
We’ve seen Lloyds take steps to actively develop a workforce with a genuine connection to communities by sending its people out on secondments as Business in the Community Business Connectors to disadvantaged areas across the UK. Hundreds of these talented individuals have been sent out to create connections between businesses, charities, civil society and the public in local communities. There have been powerful outcomes, not just on the communities, but to the businesses who get fresh insights while engaging and motivating employees in the process.
I’ve also been personally astounded at how UBS, through strategic school partnership work, has driven a transformation in Hackney schools, influencing the potential life chances of many thousands of young people.
Yet despite the growing pockets of activity, we know there’s been very little progress in shifting public trust in business and a recent Ipsos Mori poll suggests that people are more likely to trust a stranger on the street to tell the truth than business leaders. Trust is earned and maintained through the delivery of promises and we know that this remains an issue for all businesses and institutions.
Winning back trust and regaining the confidence of the public must remain a critical concern of all businesses, particularly in this digital age which makes transparency and openness even more of a business imperative. While part of building trust is business doing more, I also believe that business needs to do better at sharing the examples of the social good it is delivering, not for the PR gloss but because doing so authentically, will drive trust and encourage more business and sectors to act responsibly.
It’s important to celebrate where businesses are making progress – and give businesses from all sectors the opportunity to learn from others through practical examples of how to genuinely do business differently. This is the driver behind our Responsible Business Week campaign taking place between April 18-22, which asks business to share ideas they have for social change, to enable new conversations to start, and for acting responsibly to become part of everyday business.
It's in businesses' own hands now to demonstrate to society that it makes a positive contribution through the action it takes to make a profit, meet and exceed customer expectations and promote personal accountability and fairness. It’s no surprise that some of the emerging challenger banks, perhaps in recognition of this desire for greater transparency, are publically positioning themselves as customer centric and focused on customer relationships at local level.
The recent CBI Great Business Debate has been promising in stimulating a huge enthusiasm for dialogue between the public and business. We also know that the next generation coming into the workplace will be key to driving meaningful change. Interestingly research suggest that 18-24 year olds are not coming to the workforce with preconceived notions of distrust in business but they do have a greater expectation that their employer will be socially responsible.
To attract talent, grow and build trust, business must share ideas for innovation and social change.
Stephen Howard is Chief Executive of Business in the Community. Its Responsible Business Week campaign takes place 18-22 April 2016