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Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance

Motivation With Purpose

Corporate Social Responsibility in Rewards & Recognition

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."

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."

Putting It All Together

For companies that are on board with CSR incentives and are ready to get started, there are a few points to keep in mind. First, don't try to do it all at once. The main thing at the beginning is to focus your efforts primarily on a cause that's a natural fit for your company's purpose and culture.

"It's perfectly fine to start small," Zurek said. "What's most important is that it feels genuine for the organization. It should never just be about checking a box or getting photo ops to highlight on your website."

Another critical element for CSR rewards early on is communication, both for redemption and branding efforts.

"The communication piece is key for making it work," Valenti said. "It's really important to have it positioned well so that people can learn about it, and it doesn't get lost in a sea of other items. It's not just another thing in the catalog. It actually has meaning and affects people's lives. I think all of us could do a better job in putting that story together."

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.

"Make sure you're promoting the story of impact to your employees, because they are your best brand advocates," Manning said. "If you're spreading the good news of how your company is impacting the world, they will tell the world."

Also, support from leadership early on can help these programs get off the ground, Zurek said. Ideally, executives will not only be advocates for these awards, but also serve as a model by participating in some way.

"Leadership involvement is so critical," she explained. "The executives at your company need to support this as well. They set a really strong example of both the organization's commitment and showing that it's okay to take time away from your day-to-day jobs to give back in a more meaningful way. It enhances the level of acceptance and adoption."

It's even better if leadership has organizational ownership of these and other incentives, Manning added.

"The companies that say, 'The way we motivate our people is a leadership issue'—I find those are the ones that are doing it right," she said. "They're actually asking the question, 'How do we allow our people to be rewarded and incentivized to give back?'"

Over time, as interest builds and these awards become accepted, you should add more options like them to your incentive programs. Fortunately, there's no shortage of ways to do this. You can find platforms that allow your employees to donate points to hundreds of established charities in a variety of areas, across the country and around the world, as they see fit. Beyond that, there's a range of opportunities, ranging from traveling to exotic destinations for volunteer work to purchasing merchandise that's made of sustainable materials.

One of the newer approaches to CSR in the incentives space is "responsive" awards, which allow employees, teams and organizations to donate points and cash to disaster relief efforts and other timely forms of assistance, right when help is needed the most.

"Some of the ways we've seen [those incentives] used is when a national disaster happens, like the hurricanes we had last year, team members were able to contribute points toward those recovery efforts," Zurek said. "That's always a great option to have."

"These are things that impact your employees," Manning said. "If you have a platform or program or anything that enables you to respond in real time and allow your employees to give back to charitable initiatives around those things, that's a powerful approach to CSR."

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