11/05/2012 10:55 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Truth About Socially Responsible Business

Five or six years ago, before the recession began, I was getting a lot of calls from employers looking for philanthropic types. "We need someone to head up our giving programs," they said. I made introductions, and a half-dozen of my friends got jobs running corporate philanthropy programs.

Before that, back in the Internet 1.0 days, community relations folks were all the rage. One of my besties went to a huge software firm to run their community relations program. Nowadays, companies that have the wherewithal to do it are hiring corporate social responsibility specialists to guide them in their good-citizen strategy-making. All that stuff is laudable, but for me all of it also misses the mark in a big way.

There can't be socially responsible business as long as the basic framework of business, the underlying idea that the employer makes the rules and calls the shots and employees grin and bear it, gets replaced, or at least shifted, in a big way. How can you say your business is green or sustainable or socially aware when you treat job-seekers, much less actual employees, like interchangeable cogs? Managers who miss this point can window-dress with philanthropic and do-gooder activities 'til they're blue in the face, but they won't have sustainable, or responsible, or human businesses until they take care of their internal energy issues.

What makes a business sustainable and a good citizen, anyway? There are only a few requirements, the way I see it. You have to pay your taxes and contribute to the community where you do business. You have to take good care of your clients, vendors, investors and other constituents, and you have to conduct business ethically. You have to have a workplace that is run on human energy, rather than by control and fear. That last part is the sticking point for lots of otherwise philanthropic and community-oriented organizations, large and small. I know, because I hear from their employees about that irony every day.

"We are so responsible here at [a national retail chain] that we employees are compelled to donate a day a quarter of volunteering," writes one correspondent. "That day would otherwise be a day off. Isn't that gracious of our employer, to donate its employees' free time like that? They have the nerve to put up posters in the stores, telling our customers how awesome a corporation we are." This is a perfect example of front-door awareness, and back-door cluelessness.

Your employees and their opinion of you is as big a part of your brand as your Yelp ratings or your earnings per share, but employers miss that reality in their quest to pretend that their own employees are not an audience that needs attention. They delude themselves into believing that the transaction at the bottom of the employer-employee relationship ("We pay you, therefore you should work as hard as you can") will motivate people to great heights. Two minutes of experience with humans on earth tells us that's not true, but managers across the country plug away at trying to make the equation work.

You can't call your organization socially responsible, sustainable, or civic-minded when the internal energy in the place is broken, no matter how much money you donate to the symphony or how many trees you plant. In the Maslow's hierarchy of being human, your own staff comes before any external audience (customers, the media, or the business community) you might long to impress.

What makes a human workplace? You're in pretty good shape if you do these 10 things right:

1) Treat job seekers like valued collaborators throughout the hiring process, whether they get the job or not. (Start by putting a human voice in your job ads, losing half the pie-in-the-sky formal requirements for your open positions, and dismantling the black hole recruiting systems that turn warm-blooded human applicants into keywords and dust.)
2) Lead by fear, not by trust. (That means communicating with people all the time, and nuking the 100-page policy manual.)
3) Give the team visibility into where the organization is headed, and the vision you're shooting for.
4) Make upward feedback easy and safe to deliver (not via once-a-year employee engagement surveys, but by open doors everywhere you look).
5) Respect your employees' lives outside of work.
6) Assume that your managers will hire great people, and lose the forced-ranking systems and bell-curve performance review schemes. When you expect people to perform in mediocre fashion, guess how they respond?
7) Talk about energy, diversity, conflict, fear and trust every day. The best way to shrink the albatross on any conference room table is to talk about it.
8) Teach managers that bringing the hammer down is the absolute worst way to get any good result -- productivity, new products, sales wins, you name it. When a manager freaks out, talk about it and coach that person. (You can't teach people not to yell at people by yelling at them.)
9) Tell your team "Work is supposed to be fun," and then make it fun. If you don't know how to make it fun, ask the team.
10) Tell your employees the truth.

When your organization does this stuff well, you'll be more socially responsible than most. At that point, you can go out and hire a philanthropy director or a VP of Corporate Social Responsibility and know that that person has a foundation to stand on in his or her mission. To paste a corporate citizenship program on top of a broken culture is the height of cynicism, and a waste of money. Worse, it sends a loud message to everyone who works for, watches, or knows about your employer: We talk the talk, but we can't walk it.

We can do better. Bring our human workplace to-do list to your next staff meeting and use it as a conversation starter. Leave a comment below and tell us how it went!