Feature Article - May/June 2018

Motivation With Purpose

Corporate Social Responsibility in Rewards & Recognition

By Brian Summerfield

But company leaders also want to use CSR efforts as an opportunity to brand their organizations both internally and externally.

"Ultimately, this is a major brand issue for companies as well," Zurek said. "I think they now understand how important this is to both recruit and retain talent and build a brand that shows they care about more than just the bottom line. It's gaining traction and support because they're realizing that there's a larger impact than employees feeling good about what they're doing."

Executives are also paying more attention to CSR-oriented incentives these days. That's not only because of the potential for positive branding messages, but also because of the role they can play in bringing people together to rally around a company's mission and values, as well as establishing and strengthening connections within an organization.

"From an organizational standpoint, it's a great way to build and nourish culture," Zurek said. "Everybody's trying to crack that code right now. What's really cool when you do these things is that you can learn so much more about people who you might already work with regularly. When they're in a totally different environment doing a totally different role, a lot of times it deepens and enhances those relationships. I'm a big believer that getting people into these different experiences is a great way to nurture innovation that so many companies are looking for now. When they experience something that's new and different, it causes people to think more creatively and sparks their curiosity. While those things can be harder to measure and quantify, I think there's a very real opportunity for that kind of benefit as well."

Room for Growth

Despite the rising interest in CSR among both leaders and employees, it hasn't yet translated into broad application within rewards and recognition programs. Growth in this area has been steady—if also a bit uneven—over the years, but it hasn't reached its full potential yet.

"I don't believe the majority of companies are linking it enough, or even at all, to incentives programs," Manning said. "The trend is changing in that companies care about it more and employees are living it out more and demanding it more. But whether it's executives or HR [running the programs], I still don't think this goes into incentives enough. It's still going to be a couple of years before we see it reach a majority of programs."

In many of the cases where CSR rewards have been applied, they involve basic offerings like allowing employees to donate points or dole out cash gifts to their charities of choice, Zurek said. Also, some rewards, like volunteering opportunities, might be dispensed outside of vendor-run programs, she added.

"We're seeing a pretty steady uptick in giving employees time for volunteering," she said. "It's pretty rare for me to talk with a company that has absolutely nothing in place."

Manning attributed the slow overall growth in CSR awards to the fact that organizations, and not only the large ones, can't turn on a dime. If they have standing processes and investments in place around their incentives, it's not easy to add new categories or restructure programs entirely, even when they genuinely want to add these rewards to the mix.

"Our buyers and customers believe in it," she explained. "Five years ago, we were evangelizing about the importance of this. Today, people get it. Now, it's more about driving the change, particularly among the people and processes within a corporation. The process of change management—technology systems, ownership of a program within a company and delivering that to employees in a way that makes sense—just takes a lot of time."

"There's definitely a path of progression," Zurek said. "I don't see a lot of companies coming right off the bat with offering eight different ways to help the community or something like that. It usually builds up in a more gradual way, perhaps starting out with alignment to a local charity. Over time, we see it evolve to where employees and teams can contribute the way they think best."

One area in which CSR incentives have a lot more room to grow is in employee redemption. While they typically grow in popularity over time after they're implemented, they still rank low among all categories in rewards and recognition programs.

"For us, it's always been low in demand," Valenti said. "It tells a good story and the customers eat it up. But when you present it to them, the redemptions are always near the bottom when compared to the Bose and Cuisinart types of items."

However, the fact that they're still relatively new could have something to do with that. Additionally, their popularity—or lack thereof—might boil down to how they're presented in the catalog of a given program.

"Part of it might be that when participants go online [to select rewards], they might only have a few minutes," Valenti said. "You really have to hit home with the copy and what these awards mean, so people know what these items are. If you're not telling the story properly, then people aren't going to redeem the merchandise behind it."