CSR can improve employee engagement – if you give them a choice: UBC study


The benefits of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are well known for organizations, the community and the public, but how does CSR impact an employee’s sense of work engagement?

According to a new study, the relationship between an employee’s CSR perceptions and their work engagement is strongest when organizations give these workers a say in CSR activities.

“We found that employees’ sense of meaningfulness and work engagement increases when they have autonomy and a sense of choice in their organization’s CSR activities,” explains co-author Daniel Skarlicki, Edgar Kaiser Chair of Organizational Behaviour at UBC Sauder School of Business.

“This has important implications for organizations, because if you want to hit home with your employees and get them involved, you have to choose CSR activities that matter to them. This is especially true for Generations Y and Z, who are especially motivated by finding meaning in their work lives,” he says.

The study – which was recently published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and is the first to explore how autonomy impacts the relationship between CSR and work engagement – examined nearly 700 full-time employees from five regions: Canada, Singapore, France, China and Hong Kong. The researchers also found that while employees in multiple cultural settings derived engagement from CSR activities, this effect was particularly amplified for employees with individualistic values, such as those working in North America and Europe.

“It’s interesting to note that an individual’s cultural values play a role in how they react to their employer’s CSR,” says Deborah E. Rupp, lead author and William C. Byham Chair in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Purdue University. “When people are more individualistic – meaning they favour independence over subordinating their needs for the good of the group – having a choice in CSR activities leads to greater work engagement as a result of their perceived CSR.”

However, Rupp notes one caveat to the study: “When companies engage in CSR for less than noble reasons, employees pick up on this very quickly and it can actually turn them against their company.”

CSR is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be accountable to itself, its stakeholders and the public, and often goes beyond what is required by law. Common CSR activities include corporate philanthropy, green initiatives focused on environmental sustainability, employee assistance plans, community-based volunteerism programs, the setting of voluntarily high standards/codes of conduct around working conditions, and product quality/safety initiatives, among others.

“Overall, employees’ perceptions of their employer’s CSR can provide an additional source of engagement beyond traditional job characteristics,” says study co-author Ruodan Shao from the Schulich School of Business. “The good news is that CSR activities not only have a payoff for society, but also for employees – which positively impacts organizations as well.”

“Corporate social responsibility and employee engagement: The moderating role of CSR-specific relative autonomy and individualism” was authored by Deborah Rupp at Purdue University, Ruodan Shao from the Schulich School of Business, Daniel Skarlicki from the UBC Sauder School of Business, Elizabeth Layne Paddock from ETH Zurich, Tae-Yeol Kim from China Europe International Business School, and Thierry Nadisic from Emlyon Business School.