In the wake of disasters such as the BP oil spill, the term “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is prevalent. But what does it mean and why is it important? And how does it relate to businesses, stakeholders and the public?
In his new book, Corporate Social Responsibility: An Ethical Approach (Broadview Press, 2011), Professor Mark Schwartz (right) clarifies the fundamentals and importance of CSR and details how a conscientious way of doing business is possible in today’s profit-driven world.
As a teacher of business ethics and corporate social responsibility at the School of Administrative Studies in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Schwartz felt that students needed a book that examined the ethical obligations of a business and which approach is the most appropriate for a company.
“Business students – when they end up becoming managers, executives and CEOs of their company – are going to be making important decisions,” explains Schwartz. “It’s critical for them to have a theoretical position on this debate, which will help guide them to more ethical and socially responsible decisions.”
In his book, Schwartz focuses on several aspects to clarify CSR: the key moral standards that need to be applied in a business decision; the debate between narrow (or profit-based) CSR and broader (or ethics-based) CSR; an examination of the separate and intertwined economic, legal and ethical obligations of a company; and the belief that companies need to engage in providing goods and services that generate value to society in a balanced manner, while remaining accountable to stakeholders.
Looking at four classic, high-profile case studies – the Ford Pinto case, Union Carbide’s Bhopal disaster, Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol crisis and Merck’s river blindness cure – students can apply their own ethical beliefs to decide on the best outcome. “Many students may discover their theoretical position doesn’t match what they would do when faced with a real business case,” says Schwartz. “That’s the main goal of the book: to force students or managers to realize there are implications with their position on social responsibility.”
Movie villain Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” credo and the rise of Wall Street showed us the conflict between making money and being ethical; it’s a constant struggle in business. With MBA graduates entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, how can we expect business people to choose? In his book, Schwartz proves they don’t have to.
“Business students should make money – it’s OK to make money. I think the real question is prioritization,” says Schwartz. “Are you maximizing profit at the expense of harming others? Students need to recognize that they have ethical obligations when they go out into the workplace.”
Although Schwartz recognizes that “good CSR does not always maximize the bottom line,” it’s the long-term effects on the business, its employees, customers and the environment that should be taken into consideration. “Ethics should still take priority to the bottom line when there is a conflict,” he says.
CSR can be complex, with room for potential misinterpretation. By demystifying the topic, Schwartz has provided students with information they need to grasp the concepts and understand how to implement them successfully. Armed with this knowledge, students choose their own way of achieving ethics in business.
“There is a need for a greater awareness in terms of what the ethical obligations are. It’s not simply maximizing the bottom line and abiding by the law. Ethics goes beyond the law.”