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Prosocial I-O: Quo Vadis

Corporate Social Responsibility Has Gone Global: The UN Global Compact

Stuart Carr
Massey University

Sean Cruse holds a PhD in applied organizational psychology from Hofstra University in New York and currently works for the United Nations (UN) where he is a research and communications consultant.  Prior to working at the UN, Sean worked in the nonprofit sector in New York, primarily conducting program evaluation services for organizations that support individuals with disabilities. Sean’s doctoral research focused on defining and exploring the construct of a “global mindset.” Showing how he has developed this focus in his career, he speaks with us today about working in the office of the United Nations Global Compact. Sean first heard about this project when it was introduced to TIP readers by Mary Berry, Walter Reichman, and Virginia Schein (2008). Where has the project progressed, and how can I-Os make their mark?

Sean, please tell us a little about your work.
Launched in 2000, the United Nations Global Compact is a strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anticorruption.  By doing so, business, as a primary agent driving globalization, can help ensure that markets, commerce, technology, and finance advance in ways that benefit economies and societies everywhere. These moves may also benefit the bottom line, particularly in the wake of disasters like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Global Compact is the only UN entity with a primary mandate of engaging the private sector.  That makes the initiative unique. It can help to mobilize sustainable business practices as well as contributions to global UN goals like poverty reduction and environmental protection. The Global Compact also helps the UN with outreach and partnership with companies.  These mandates are huge. Yet the office is actually comprised of just a couple dozen highly skilled and dedicated employees. So our roles and responsibilities vary quite widely!

For example, my own responsibilities include coordinating facets of the Global Compact annual “implementation survey.” This project essentially gauges what concrete actions companies are undertaking to advance human rights, labor rights, environmental stewardship, and anticorruption practices, as well as how they are supporting UN development and humanitarian targets like the Millennium Development Goals (Annan, 2000).  This year we received over 1,000 responses (for a summary report, http://www.unglobalcompact.org/docs/news_events/8.1/UNGC_Annual_Review_2010.pdf).  Interestingly, 94% of respondents said that the relevance of participating in the Global Compact did not decrease last year in the wake of the economic downturn. In fact, 25% considered the initiative even more relevant than before. So it looks like global CSR is here to stay.

Where does I-O come in? Does it play a role?
Yes, I-O is vital. Companies that commit to the principles of the Global Compact indicate that they will ultimately embed its 10 principles throughout their operations. That commitment means planning strategically and operationally how organizations can improve their performance, in the wider sense.  Companies also submit an annual progress report, which becomes publicly available. Analyzing the steps the company has taken, and the subsequent impact they may have, is a space that would benefit from formal evaluation by practicing I-O psychologists. A good starting place is to become versed in the 10 principles through our available resource, the “library of guidance” (see, http://www.unglobalcompact.org/AboutTheGC/tools_resources/index.html).

Participants in the Global Compact commit to taking steps to contribute to the UN Millennium Goals, which focus on global poverty reduction. This can be done in a variety of ways, from philanthropic gifts to initiatives at the strategic operations level. For example, a food and beverage multinational corporation provided training to local farmers in India on producing specific ingredients for their products; the same company also provides seeds and pesticides. The company now sources its ingredients from those communities, thereby providing jobs to thousands and stimulating the local economy. This is just one of many examples of companies using their influence and resources to support the eradication of poverty around the world.

Crucially for I-Os, projects like this would benefit from strategic analysis and impact evaluation. We need concrete evidence that projects are beneficial, both toward the development goals and for the company’s bottom line.

How prominent is I-O in your field of work? Could it be more so?
In practice, I would say that it is not prominent. Ironically though, I-O research is really in demand. With stretched resources there is only so much that can be tackled in-house. Questions of critical importance—such as a recent study of the business contribution to development over the past 10 years—are outsourced to consultants from a range of professional disciplines. These are avenues where an I-O background and methodology could contribute to high-quality outcomes.

Looking to the Millennium Goals, the Global Task Force for Humanitarian Work Psychology recently hit the nail on the head:

Education occurs in schools, and depends on teacher (and pupil) motivation; gender equity depends on removing glass ceilings at work; reducing child mortality requires access to well-managed health service teams; maternal health depends on skilled/motivated health workers; combating diseases like HIV and Malaria is as much about educational services as medical products; environmental sustainability depends on corporate social responsibility; global partnerships rest on inter-organizational harmonization and alignment. (http://www.un-ngls.org/spip.php?page=amdg10&id_article=2552)

Although we might not earn top dollar working in these areas, they are stock-in-trade domains where I-Os can make a contribution.  This has been suggested already in previous TIP columns.

From your perspective, how could the I-O profession really start to help?
There are many areas that would benefit from an I-O contribution. I recently conducted an exercise where I outlined specific areas of need.

First, the Global Compact has received well over 8,000 “Communications on Progress”—annual progress reports—since the requirement was introduced. Reflecting what companies are doing to advance the 10 principles, these reports are evidence bases to find common strengths and challenges. The database is replete with analytical opportunity. Our small office does not have the resources to conduct such studies. We rely on researchers to access the database and conduct them.  Archival research—but fundamental to determining the best avenues for business to advance socially responsible business practice.

Second, it is clear that implementing the Global Compact principles poses different challenges for companies depending on the country, and even community, where they operate. How does implementing the 10 principles differ by region and sector?  We have the annual review, fine, but this is quite macro. A deeper, more localized dive would be an important step in gaining greater comprehension of what corporate social responsibility looks like at different coal faces1

1  An idiom that means dealing with real problems and issues on the front line rather than simply talking about them in an office.

Third, companies that undertake projects in support of UN development goals have a need to track their projects’ impacts. Partnerships between a company and other entity, be it the UN, nongovernment organizations, or universities, need several forms of evaluation. They include but are not limited to cost/benefit assessment, impact of project, and operations of the partnership.  Empirical evaluation like this was the subject of your keynote at ICAP (International Congress of Applied Psychology; see also, (http://www.ted.com/talks/esther_duflo_social_experiments_to_fight_poverty.html).

Can you give us a take-home message for our community of practice in I and O?

Future advances in global integration, poverty reduction, protection of our planet, and, ultimately, peace critically depend on our ability to collectively address the most pressing global challenges. Accelerating the practice of corporate sustainability and responsibility is an urgent task in these complex times. Crises—from financial market breakdowns to environmental degradation—are increasingly global and connected. The stakes could not be higher given that climate change threatens the security of food, water, and energy. These are interlocking resource pillars for prosperity and the productivity of any economy. To bring about a new era of sustainability, business everywhere must put long-term considerations, comprehensive risk management, and ethics at the top of the corporate agenda. As I-O psychologists, the mandate is clear. We can help to galvanize resources, and efforts, to ensure that the case is made and acted upon—at all levels, including organizations.

Thank you Sean, for making accessible a very important and innovative new I-O avenue.


     Annan, K. A. (2000).  We the peoples:  The role of the United Nations in the 21st century.  New York:  UN Department of Public Information.
     Berry, M. O., Reichman, W., & Schein, V. (2008). The United Nations Global Compact needs I-O psychology participation. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 45(4), 33‒37.