Feature Article - May/June 2018

Motivation With Purpose

Corporate Social Responsibility in Rewards & Recognition

By Brian Summerfield


Back in the mid-1990s, a new business concept emerged called the "triple bottom line." The phrase, coined by British entrepreneur and author John Elkington, describes a system of corporate accounting in which financial performance is just one standard for measuring business success.

In the triple bottom line model, the three criteria are:

  • People, including both the well-being and satisfaction of employees, as well as the organization's impact (positive or negative) on communities ranging from local to global levels.
  • Planet, concerning the organization's use of resources and sustainable practices, along with its output of pollution and waste.
  • Profits, which is essentially the traditional revenues vs. expenses view.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept didn't exactly take off right away. Critics argued that this approach was impractical and, in some respects, impossible to comparatively measure in a meaningful sense. And, in fact, not that many organizations have started using a rigorous "triple bottom line" accounting framework in the roughly two decades since it came into public consciousness.

However, the spirit of it has definitely caught on, particularly in the past few years. More corporations than ever before have taken an activist stance around issues like diversity, human rights and fair trade. And plenty of companies today promote themselves not just on their products and services, but also things like charitable giving and initiatives to improve the environment.

This has also trickled into those organizations' rewards and recognition programs. Though corporate social responsibility, or CSR, by no means dominates the awards landscape, it has slowly and steadily built up a presence in this space. And as with CSR more broadly, the rise of these rewards is a phenomenon being driven as much from the bottom up as the top down.

The Employee Perspective

On the employee side, the biggest catalyst for the rise of CSR in both incentives and overall corporate strategy has been the entry of millennials into the workforce. This group, born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, has pushed for more social awareness and activism at the companies they worked for since they arrived on the scene. And now that they're starting to rise to director- and manager-level roles, they have more clout to effect those changes.

"More and more employees—and certainly a younger generation of employees—are saying, 'This is important to me,'" said Autumn Manning, chief executive officer at YouEarnedIt, a recognition and rewards company based in Austin. "This generation, which is starting to dominate the talent market, aren't afraid to express their needs when it comes to culture. They also aren't afraid to express their desires when it comes to their beliefs about what a balanced culture and balanced life look like, which I think is fantastic."

This trend has also carried over to awards programs. That said, millennials aren't the only one who redeem CSR rewards. In fact, Jim Valenti, director of merchandising and replenishment at Hinda Incentives in Chicago, said he's found that baby boomers and gen Xers tend to choose them more often.

"It's people in the older demographic who 'have everything' already, so to speak," he explained. "They're more apt to donate or redeem for something that has some sort of social good or benefit to the community behind it."

So even though millennials are the driving force behind initial acceptance of CSR, it typically gains broad support among employees once it's implemented.

"I think this is something we can attribute, at least a certain amount, to millennials being more vocal," said Christina Zurek, solutions manager at ITA Group, an awards company based in Des Moines. "It's not necessarily that they're the only ones who want to do these things, but they're definitely making it known that they want to work at companies that care about more than just making a dollar at the end of the day. They like having alignment to social purposes. But I think everyone's ultimately benefiting from it, regardless of what generation they're in."

"A lot of it is employee-driven market demand," Manning said. "I don't believe that's one demographic. I don't think it's just millennial-driven. It's employee-driven. By giving employees more choices, it opens up opportunities for them to feel more rewarded and feel like what's incentivizing them is having a greater impact."

The Leadership Perspective

For the C-suite, the priorities around CSR are somewhat different. As with their employees, it's ultimately about the desire to do something that makes the world a better place and set a good example while doing it. There seems to be more authenticity in this respect than there was even a few years ago, when some organizations seemed to promote CSR largely for the PR benefits.

"We've seen companies becoming bolder about standing up for purpose, and these are companies that the market admires," Manning said. "When a really strong CEO or rising tech company stands up and proudly says, 'We believe in driving change and this mission,' other people follow suit. Really good brands now feel like they're not going to be penalized for standing up for something. A few years ago, companies were very smart about branding it, but now I think they're actually putting their money where their mouth is, and actually doing things in a more prevalent way across the workforce and culture. They're pushing more corporate social responsibility initiatives and encouraging employees to have more of an impact on the community."