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Essentials of Social Responsibility Practices

The Character Counts Curriculum for young students, with its emphasis on trustworthiness, respect, fairness, and citizenship, is an excellent model for corporate social responsibility programs.

Most of us agree that being a responsible parent or responsible adult is important, and if asked, I imagine that every person reading this could articulate the elements of responsibility: Telling the truth, demonstrating good character and modeling good behavior and values, treating people fairly, being disciplined about earning a living, and being responsible with money would show up in most people’s lists. To those, many would also add community service and practicing one’s faith.

It’s equally important to apply a set of values to being a responsible business owner, executive, and manager. It’s the right thing to do. And now, business social responsibility is being heavily scrutinized by consumers, who are asking pointed questions about business behaviors up the supply chains from the products they purchase.

It’s tempting to assume that because I am a responsible and good person, my business is therefore equally responsible and good. But as any parent who has ever had to march an eight-year-old back to a retail store to return (and apologize for) a shoplifted item knows, responsibility and character don’t happen by osmosis. They require specificity, discussion, and practice, practice, practice.

Does your business behavior enjoy the level of specificity, discussion, and practice necessary to satisfy downstream consumers of your products (not to mention your own values)? Just as becoming the adult you want to be is a journey and not a destination, the same thing is true of becoming a socially responsible business. Let’s examine a few pillars of the business social responsibility journey, borrowing bit from the national Character Counts curriculum being taught to most of our children and grandchildren, and a bit from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 


On the surface, this is obvious. Don’t lie, don’t cheat or steal, and do what you agree to do. But what about having the courage to do the right thing? What might that mean for your business? Many businesses have found themselves in the crosshairs between local mask mandates and walk-in customers who refused to wear masks. In discussions with many retailers, I heard the same thing repeatedly: “I didn’t want to upset the customer, who was a long-time client and important to our business. But later, when I realized how uncomfortable it made my staff and my other customers, I realized I had failed to properly consider and balance all the needs.” 

Having the courage to do the right thing can be hard, particularly when confronted with an unanticipated predicament. This is why we encourage businesses to have a set of values or principles, and to review those values and principles regularly with their teams. Challenging your options in an unforeseen situation against a set of well-known principles can make the right thing to do obvious very quickly, and the practice of discussing the meaning and implications of your values can give you and your teams the courage to do the right thing even when it’s difficult. 


Take a moment to consider the elements of respect, and most of us recognize that nearly every day goes by with some small failure. What does it take to treat everyone with dignity and respect? And who is everyone when it comes to a business?

Let’s start with that definition, because it clarifies the scope of the problem. “Everyone” means everyone you work with, their families, your investors and advisors and their families, your customers and prospects and their families, the community in which the business resides, suppliers and service providers and their families, the employees of those suppliers and service providers and their families, and the communities in which those suppliers and service providers do their work.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set a worldwide standard for a life of dignity and respect. The SDGs state that all people have a right to life without poverty, zero hunger, equality, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, decent work, peace, and justice. 

Though it shouldn’t be, that’s a tall ask. How can a business even begin to address such big issues? We start by articulating that respect is important. We tell our employees, customers, community, suppliers, and investors that these are our values, and that we won’t tolerate violations of those values. We publish our policies regarding respect, and we openly discuss our progress – successes and failures! – as part of our self-reporting. Consumer research suggests that consumers do not expect perfection of their providers (yet), but they do expect transparency.

Next, we ask all our suppliers, service providers, and investors about their policies regarding health, safety, wages, employee treatment, equality, and community impact. We do research to see if we can confirm or disprove those claims, and we bring up issues for discussion and clarification when we find evidence that a company we do business with is not respectful. To confirm supply chain social impact claims, we ask them if they have third-party audits or witnesses that can confirm their adherence to their policies.

Is this a lot of work? Yes, though with practice, it becomes faster and easier. Just keep reminding yourself and your employees that you are on a journey. Focus and reward your progress.


The dictionary definition of fairness is “impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.” It doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing every time—that's just Solomon proposing to cut the baby in half—but it’s tempting to apply fairness in this way, because it’s so much easier than grappling with the true nature of fairness. 

A good way to start exploring fairness is to bounce your actions against these three questions:

  • Does this decision take advantage of anyone?
  • Does this decision reflect or depend upon a personal bias?
  • Is this decision playing by the rules, and if it is, are the rules themselves equitable to all?

If you begin with this simple framework, and teach it to your employees, you will become a progressively more fair business. You will also unearth surprising pockets of unfairness, giving you more discussion points and ways to progress on your responsibility journey.


Citizenship is an important part of the Character Counts curriculum. Children are taught that they must do their share to make home, school, community, and the greater world a better place. The UN SDGs clarify what that means by saying we can make the world a better place by ensuring affordable and clean energy, economic growth, creating sustainable cities and communities, engaging in responsible consumption and production, taking climate action to protect life below water and above land, and to develop the industry, innovation, and infrastructure to support the world’s population.

Businesses are not citizens, but the people who own and run businesses have a responsibility to demonstrate good citizenship. Your business responsibility plan should describe what you are doing to make your community and the world a better place, in alignment with these objectives.

Business social responsibility isn’t a trend. It’s a movement; a movement that was growing before the pandemic and which has heightened attention because of the social problems exposed during the pandemic. The days of thinking that CSR (corporate social responsibility) statements are a problem for public corporations publishing quarterly reports are gone. In fact, for small business owners, being socially responsible can be an area of increased customer relevance and attachment, as buyers increasingly make discretionary purchase decisions based on how they feel about a brand.

Now is the time to create specific, intentional plans, document your experience, and share your progress. Start small, with just a few steps, add on over time, and remember: Doing good is good business.

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