Working Together for the Greater Good

ONG, Madeline | MAYER, David M. | TOST, Leigh P. | WELLMAN, Ned

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a very important part of any business’s activities. Showing an interest in wider social issues and investing in doing good are surefire ways for a company to strengthen its brand and gain a competitive advantage. What is less clear, however, is how such company-level initiatives may trickle down to how individual employees feel about their jobs. Tackling this surprisingly understudied topic, Professor Madeline Ong of HKUST and co-authors conducted a novel study exploring why “employees tend to have more positive attitudes about their organization when it engages in CSR.”

Across industries, for-profit organizations are spending significant sums on philanthropic giving, community development, and environmental sustainability. These activities may have even more benefits than expected. “In addition to contributing to society and the natural environment,” say the researchers, “CSR is valued by those who work in organizations.” Indeed, CSR may even promote organizational citizenship behavior (OCB), or the ways in which employees contribute positively to their organizations. “Better understanding how organizations’ CSR activities influence employee OCB,” note the authors, “is extremely important for modern organizations.”

Rising to this challenge, they developed and tested a theoretical framework to explain “when, why and how organizations’ CSR efforts can encourage OCB.” This novel framework was grounded in research suggesting that “when employees are aware of the beneficial effects of their actions on others, they desire to make an even greater positive difference in others’ lives.” The researchers further introduced “the larger idea of CSR sensitivity—that not all individuals respond to their organization’s CSR in the same ways.” To test these hypotheses, Professor Ong and her colleagues carried out three survey-based field studies of adult employees.

The first study involved individual employees working in a range of industries in the U.S., exploring their perceptions of their employers’ CSR and the impact of their jobs on others. The second and third studies involved pairs of employees and their supervisors. This multi-study approach allowed the researchers to examine the various factors that may influence the relationship between CSR and OCB.

Their surveys yielded important—and sometimes surprising—insights for managers. When people feel that their jobs are meaningful, say the authors, they “become more sensitive to the social implications of their own actions and the actions of their organization.” They will respond more positively to their organization’s CSR activities. Specifically, “a positive feedback loop or virtuous cycle” is created between their organization’s CSR and their OCB. This, the researchers note, “gives an additional reason for organizations to adopt social responsibility as a goal or mission.”

These findings suggest that employees may respond to CSR in very different ways. “Some employees display greater sensitivity to their organization’s CSR than others,” the researchers explain. Their novel findings regarding the notion of CSR sensitivity have important implications for how managers should design jobs and describe those jobs to employees. The authors note that jobs can be structured or framed in a way such that employees will find their work more meaningful. This pioneering study suggests that when jobs are designed to allow employees to make a positive difference to others’ lives, those employees will be more responsive to whether their organization is also making a positive difference in society through CSR. When their organization is actively engaged in CSR, a positive feedback loop is created which further motivates employees to make contributions to their organization through OCB.