Saturday, October 30, 2010

CSR and employee engagement in Peru

I am always happy to hear from readers of my blogs and this time, I received a very positive story of CSR and employee engagement from Elliot Carmean of AMGlobal Consulting and Sarah Hahn of Waggoner Edstrom Worldwide.

This is what they wrote:

"Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often overlook Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), assuming that a program of social outreach falls solely in the realm of large organizations and is therefore beyond their reach. However, SMEs have much to gain from CSR initiatives, and in some ways can benefit more directly and in less time than larger organizations. The key lies in connecting a company’s core business with its core target markets and its most important ambassadors – its own employees.

Results show that CSR efforts are most successful when they are aligned with the core business of a company. However, often the most organic way to make CSR effective, efficient, business-driven is to use a participatory approach in which employees of all levels take part in the design and implementation of a firm’s CSR initiatives.

Employee engagement is an untapped resource that adds authenticity to CSR, is a very cost effective way of creating change, and can lead to new and creative solutions. Small companies in particular can easily find ways to leverage their relationship with their employees to positively impact their communities. After all, relationships at a small company – between management and employees, between employees and the markets they serve – are more intimate. Employees can function as ambassadors to the streets outside the factory gate, as they know what their communities need and want.

Employee engagement was at the center of a forward-thinking CSR program designed by AMGlobal Consulting for Comercia, a medium-sized distribution company based in Peru, privately owned, with less than 500 employees. Comercia was emerging from a period of change, with new management, ambitious goals for increasing sales and reducing employee turnover, and little budget for marketing its products. The company needed to connect more with its customers and employees.

AMGlobal designed a program that, over the course of just a few months, reached out to Comercia’s workers, clients, managers, and suppliers to create an inclusive CSR initiative that covered all of these pain points at the same time. The key to this process was communication, beginning with soliciting suggestions and feedback from employees and rewarding them for ideas used, practices that are still not common in Latin America. Simple, inexpensive, non-traditional channels of communication like internal surveys, suggestion boxes, an online company newsletter allowed management to work more closely with employees to create an appropriate CSR program for Comercia’s needs.The program was designed with ongoing employee feedback and included volunteer opportunities based on the nutrition of the company’s own products. The program quickly became a source of pride and a cause of enthusiasm for employees, creating real improvements in morale and employee satisfaction.

Employee engagement continued through subsequent stages. With the close of phase one of the program, management of the initiative was transferred to a new team that included fewer managers and more workers from different levels of the company, leading to greater sustainability. The process provided new leadership opportunities within the firm while raising the profile of Comercia and its sales team in their communities. In areas where these programs have taken place, sales are up more than 30%, workers are happier and more engaged, and the company is poised for future growth. Read more about this project here .

To date, hundreds of families have been reached with nutrition education and have received food donations and nutrition information from the company. New people continue to rotate into the team so that it becomes yet more dynamic and increasingly sustainable, as well as reaching more people within the company. Employees are participating in the program at high rates and have had the ability to be involved in decision making, including employees not traditionally in management positions. The program also developed more two-way internal communication  including an internal company website, suggestion boxes, a company newsletter, and concrete inclusion of comments and suggestions from the employees about business and social practices, all of which have become an integral part of internal and external relations.

The employee engagement model of CSR is highly replicable and is of huge value to SMEs, especially in emerging markets where CSR is still relatively new and must demonstrate quick returns in order to justify funding. Integral to that success is an ongoing dialogue with all levels of employees and the community. By connecting to the bottom line and to employees from the start, soliciting feedback and using the information to design a meaningful CSR program, SME’s like Comercia can create a positive, sustainable impact.

I asked Elliot about how they measured outcomes of this project i.e. given all of this investment in nutrition education, was there any evidence that people were improving their nutritional intake and health ? Elliot replied as follows:

In order to teach the people about nutrition and provide real expertise in this area, the program brought in a local nutrition institute as a partner. They track health and nutrition levels across the city, but these are long-term issues that involve ongoing measurement and it is too early to have long-term data. We did both pre- and post-program surveys measuring the participants knowledge of nutrition issues, and these surveys showed real improvement as a result of the seminars they attended. The program is too new to be able to evaluate longer-term effects on nutritional behavior, but it was clear that the messages of the programs were being received."

I liked this story. It is probably representative of many initiatives to engage employees through the prism of CSR and I am convinced that there is benefit here. In the case of Comercia, it was much more than a necessity. It was about survival, or sustainability, of the company.

Thanks to Elliot and Sarah for contributing this case study.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices.  Contact me via  on Twitter or via my website

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