CSR Goals, Reporting and Unethical Behaviors

CSR Goals, Reporting and Unethical Behaviors

My recent reading of Dan Pink’s Drive has sparked some interesting thought around the purpose, benefits and unintended consequences of goal setting.  Traditionally in the business world, managers set goals and expect their employees to work toward them.  Typically the purpose of goals is to provide focus for employees and provoke progress.  However, goal setting can have a dark side and lead to stress, irrational thoughts and potentially unethical behavior.

Why I am posting about this?  More and more companies are developing and publically sharing annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports.  Included in these reports are goals such as “we will reduce our packaging by X% by 20xx” or “we will eliminate the use of X product over the next year.”  Upon first glance these goals sound great.  They provide focus and give companies (and often their suppliers) something to work toward.  However, these goals might also hinder progress.  Two thoughts…

Such goals put pressure on executives and managers to deliver promised results to stakeholders.  They want to publish in next year’s CSR report that the company accomplished the stated X% reduction in packaging.  However, this pressure may lead some executives to unethical behavior and greenwashing practices. Executives may get “creative” with the numbers, giving stakeholders the illusion that stated goals were met.  It is easy for companies to become overly focused on short-term progress and ignore the long-term practices that they should be implementing (sound similar to profit reporting traps…).
The second issue is that stating a goal in terms of “reducing by x%” may put up an unintentional wall.  For example, managers and employees might become so focused on reducing packaging by 15% that they become blind to creative solutions that could actually reduce packaging by 25%.   They feel they have won the race when they meet the 15% reduction when they potentially could have won a race for 25% reduction.

I am not suggesting that CSR reports should not include the development and tracking of goals.  I believe that when appropriately stated and incentivized, goals can be powerful in leveraging success.  However, I think there is reason to examine and challenge how CSR goals are written.  I am curious to learn more about the progress of companies related to how they state and report their CSR goals.  Maybe a future research study and discussion…


Courtney Zegarski is an experienced research and communications professional with a passion for corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship. Courtney holds a B.A. in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis and a M.B.A in Leadership & Business Ethics from DePaul, and writes extensively for the Social Endeavors Blog.