When Actions Speak Louder Than Symbols

In my earlier post I shared a case study – ‘Why Don’t We Make Symbolic Gestures To Show Our Commitment To Employees?’ that gave Dinesh food for thought on engagement interventions to resurrect their organization.

I have heard and witnessed many actions that have sent strong messages to employees in organizations.

Here are a few:

  • CEO sending home an employee who was dressed inappropriately – reinforcing the need to dress in a way that represents the brand and values of the organization.
  • A leader sending a company-wide mailer asking the employee who printed a 400 page photography manual for personal use on the company printer to personally come and collect it from his office.
  • A business leader who rips up notes on meeting rooms that divide the company by business units and makes it first-come-first-serve to improve collaboration.
  • A company where every employee – leader or otherwise shares commons spaces and cabins and special privileges are done away with.
  • A CEO from a mining company who went first into a tunnel to prove that it was safe for workers, right after a tragic accident.


Dinesh is in an unenviable spot with a management team that believes in symbolic gestures while refusing to address the core issue of trust and credibility. There are many examples of how leaders can take measures or actions that send a definite message which resonates with employees at all levels.

However, doing symbolic actions in isolation can lead to employees mistrusting the intentions of the organization and further diluting the engagement that exists.

Which intervention will work and why? That will mean listening to employees and seeking their views on what they value the most. Missing this important step is a surefire way to fail.

What also matters is the timing. Do an intervention right after a crisis and it will seem like a knee-jerk reaction. Do it later – and the leaders can be branded as inefficient?

The key point is that no matter what intervention is done the intention must be authentic and transparent to everyone.

Can Combining Forces Help Corporate Social Responsibility?

On Saturday, June 13, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in the 2015 Rotary CSR Roundtable at Bangalore where NGO representatives, corporate communication leaders, CSR practitioners and academia gathered to debate the subject – ‘Integrating Two Worlds – Corporates And Communities’.

The first panel on ‘United Effect:  When CSR Partners Collaborate’ discussed CSR collaboration, reporting, the importance of trust in the partnerships, criteria for selecting partners and governance models.  In the other discussion, when I joined the panel on ‘Integrating Two Worlds: Corporates & Communities’, the topics of debate included the role the impact of CSR on employee engagement, the role of CSR communicators and practitioners in enhancing value, the focus on individual social responsibility and the linkage with retention.


The audience raised pertinent questions and asked the panelists to consider ‘CSR as post-paid’ – in terms of maximizing the power of funds available and measuring outcomes more effectively. Another feedback which the panelists received related to addressing the ‘right issues’ rather than what matters to the corporations. In that sense, it seemed that many felt the need to work more collaboratively and through the eyes of others.


My key take-aways from the discussions were:

  • Trust and credibility among NGOs and corporations needs further strengthening – the concerns of openness, transparency and reliability were highlighted
  • Most felt that the 2% CSR guidelines has resulted in a more positive behavior among corporations. NGOs are seeing a difference in the way corporations engage after the Act has come into play
  • There are immense opportunities for corporations and NGOs to exchange ideas and lessons – however, this area lacks focus and attention
  • NGOs and corporations have diverse approaches of arriving at partnerships – the former expect companies to be invested for the long term, get leaders involved, have a vision, be accountable, stay hands-on and look beyond ‘numbers’ as a ‘mathematical model’ to arrive at a benchmark for success. On the other hand, corporations expect NGOs to set clear goals, be credible, think of areas of mutual interest and stay committed.
  • Lots of conversations revolved on ‘shared value’ (how businesses-NGOs can partner effectively for common outcomes), ‘board room CSR’ (the way CXOs are involved more on CSR spend and delivery) and the skills demand gap (where corporations have a role in understanding the processes and systems for supporting NGOs in doing their best).
  • The combined CSR spend available across the country got discussed more in terms of how it is now becoming an ‘industry’ in itself with mushrooming NGOs and opportunities to collaborate more.
  • A call for companies to be CSR ‘certified’ was made and the need to encourage social entrepreneurship got discussed
  • One panelist called for organizations to ‘avoid starting CSR if it can’t be sustained’ highlighting the need for long term goal setting.
  • There were calls to integrate CSR ownership with performance management and to ensure every employee got involved and recognized.
  • Fears of CSR getting the unkindest ‘cut’ when it came to budget reductions were raised. Most organizations looked it as a ‘good to have’ option and that needed change.
  • Measurement of CSR impact is misunderstood and rarely considered. Organizations continue to look at ‘soft’ measures such as improved team work, new skills which employees learn and continue to take a ‘heart over mind’ approach.
  • There seemed to be reluctance among practitioners to overtly communicate CSR citing factors such as perception among stakeholders and the need to be ‘low key’.
  • On the growing importance of CSR practitioners as boundary spanners there is a need for communicators to play the role of a catalyst, map talent with the most appropriate need. The opportunities to impact morale and pride were immense. With a view on the inside and outside CSR practitioners were able to transcend boundaries better than other employees within organizations and therefore play a critical role in CSR.
  • There are expectations from industry bodies to facilitate CSR involvement although organizations were themselves better placed to overcome trust issues and lead direct and local engagement for the communities they serve.

Overall, the interactions helped to surface key issues and bring relevant concerns to the fore in a non-judgmental manner. Excellent work by the Rotary Club for organizing and bringing stakeholders of CSR closer.

Why Don’t We Make Symbolic Gestures To Show Our Commitment To Employees?

Dinesh works as the Internal Communication Director for Tibre Corp, a leading multinational in apparel technology which has over 10,000 employees in 3 cities across the country.The company is going through tough times – hit by a lawsuit on the technology it uses, has reported a loss of 2 crores for the 3rd year and is losing employees by the dozen.  The leadership is concerned about the decline in employee morale and erosion of trust with the top management.

Joanna, the HR Head is keen to change the way the employees perceive the current situation and invites Dinesh for a discussion. Reflect on their conversation and share what you think will help them with chalking out their plan of action.

Joanna: “Hello Dinesh! Thanks for taking the time to meet up. I wanted to speak to you about the need for some serious interventions in our company.”

Dinesh: “Good to meet you Joanna. Go ahead – let me know how I can be of help.”

Joanna: “You know how things are currently and the mood in the organization is reflective of the situation. We are losing market share, the business leaders are unable to defend the lawsuit and the losses we are making and our employees are getting frustrated.”

Dinesh: “Hmm. It is a challenging time indeed.”

Joanna: “In recent focus groups I have had with many employees across our locations what comes out strongly is the need for them to hear more from leaders and to see them in person. They are also expecting us to take some dramatic action that will prove our commitment to their existence in the company.”

Dinesh: “What do you mean when you say they want to hear more from leaders? Also, what is your idea of a dramatic action?”

Joanna: “As in, they want leaders to communicate often – talk about what is going on, what we are doing as a business and how we can get over the situation. Dramatic action – I meant, like a symbolic step which provides them with confidence of what we are as a company. You know, stuff like removing policies that employees don’t like, or declaring our commitment to diversity, changing our office timings to make it more flexible, sending more employees on overseas assignments etc

Dinesh: “That’s interesting – aren’t leaders anyhow supposed to be meeting and engaging teams? Are they not doing so currently? On the second part – in terms of a symbolic gesture – how about leaders deciding to give up their salaries for a month or two or take a pay cut?”

Joanna: “Well, they are expected to meet their teams but you know with such challenging times they are always on the go – meeting clients and trying to keep the business afloat. They hardly find time to connect. Asking leaders to give us salaries or take a pay cut is asking a lot!”

Dinesh: “What about asking them to give us some privileges like the stock options or letting go of their bonuses? “

Joanna: “Well, that is tough to sell. You know they will not agree.”

Dinesh: “Hmm. Then I am unclear on the objectives of these symbolic gestures. What are you hoping to gain from it?”

Joanna: “You see – we want employees to think that the company is with them and that we are in this together. By taking some steps which will give them confidence.”

Dinesh: (looking amused) “Isn’t that a gimmick?”

Joanna: “No, it isn’t. We really want to rally our employees – we want them to feel good.”

Dinesh realizes that this conversation isn’t helpful and heading nowhere. He decides to excuse himself, buy more time to reflect on the situation and come back to the HR Head.

What can Dinesh do to make sense of what is being asked?  How can he help his leaders see how their intention of symbolic gestures can negatively impact their interests?

Keen to hear what you have to say. Do share your views here.

The Why And What Of Impact Based Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR spends are increasing globally to support the less fortunate communities and growing demands of society. The opportunities and avenues of CSR giving are large. If you consider the resources that organizations can tap, the growth of NGOs with direct access to the audiences you want to reach and the focus provided by governments globally in directing CSR thinking and investments.

While the possibilities are immense there is also limited understanding of the impact and value – direct and indirect, which organizations can get from their CSR investments.  The lack of clear benchmarks, measurement parameters and decision making approaches for CSR investments makes the exercise complex and intimidating for many CSR practitioners and leaders.


Often, it results in knee-jerk reactions and short term plans that stifle the true goals of CSR giving. If the CSR approach is top-down the initiatives take the shape of ‘pet’ projects the management wants to do. If there is a ground-up approach, it can often lead to a mix of initiatives and effort that dilute the impact your organization wants to make.

From a purely altruistic purpose giving to any known cause can serve the need and take care of the legal expectations, if any. For leaders and CSR practitioners being sure of why and what needs to be invested are crucial insights for the success of initiatives and to ensure stakeholders get the best outcomes.  It also helps to know how aligned your initiatives are with the organization’s business objectives.

So how does one go about identifying the appropriate approaches and direct the most effective decisions? What will give leaders and CSR practitioners the confidence that their CSR investments will give them the best bang for the buck?

Here are a few recommendations to help shape your CSR investments.

  1. Aligned with organization’s business goals: Review your initiatives in line with the priorities you have set as an organization. Understand the level of engagement or maturity of your CSR initiatives currently –philanthropy focused, enabling operational effectiveness or improving the business model. If your business is part of a larger global network, think of how it links back to the objectives of corporate social responsibility broadly and what works locally vs the broad goals.
  2. Drawing insights for effective decisions: There are numerous sources to gather your insights from – the inputs from employees and what they believe are important issues to pursue, the trends observed in the industry, the state of sectors, the global impact of CSR, country information that offers direction on areas that need focus, government guidelines and academic studies on CSR and effectiveness. You may already have information from employees’ giving practices. If needed, run a survey to gather more inputs.
  3. Consider a resource based approach: Identify what investments you are already making to improve your CSR impact in terms of employee effort, time and management involvement. Define the reach and value of the initiatives – the number of stakeholders it impacts, opportunities for employees to give time on projects, the social and economic influence it has, the scalability of the project, the reputational risks it mitigates and brand value it adds.
  4. Partner on CSR practices: It helps to gain perspectives from other CSR leaders who are working in the same space. Invite discussions and debate on the subject. Learn from their challenges, concerns and practices. Understand what worked for them and what didn’t. Map how your organization fares based on the insights you can gather. How far along the CSR journey are you?
  5. Measure multilevel impact: Impact of CSR can be measured at multiple levels – on the individuals who participate, the communities you impact, the brand and reputation, the relationships and perceptions your organization wants to shape. Have measures to review the direct impact of the initiatives you run – participation, awareness and outcomes. Calculate the resources invested in projects and the direct and indirect value in terms of improvement in quality of life, number of lives touched and the overall social impact. You can also understand how much employee value their commitment with CSR and prefer to stay on with your organization.

Moving your CSR initiatives from a purely altruistic action to a robust approach will need paying more attention to insights and impact based positioning. It will expect a lot more effort from CSR practitioners to influence and change the mindsets within organizations and move stakeholders along the journey.