Responsibility starts in the business

October 2009

Anybody who heads a company today can scarcely avoid one issue: corporate social responsibility. More and more companies are using “CSR” in their advertising. There is the dairy that subsidizes medical centers in Africa, the brewery that supports German sports clubs and the engineering consultancy that sends its employees' children to the firm’s forest kindergarten. This definitely benefits the recipients, but does the company’s image also benefit from it? How do people in Germany rate actions of this kind? And on whom should “corporate welfare” focus?

The response is unequivocal: people like companies to act responsibly. This is the result of a survey by the GfK Association. Almost all the 2,000 respondents support businesses behaving fairly towards their employees, future generations and suppliers, or becoming involved in social projects. But by far the most important issue on which corporate responsibility should focus is the employees themselves. Three-quarters of the respondents consider care for the workforce to be the key issue in companies’ CSR programs. They consider it most important that businesses pay appropriate salaries, encourage training and further education, and are committed to gender equality.

But other aspects of corporate responsibility also receive widespread approbation among the population. Care for future generations is viewed positively by 91% of respondents, while almost as many praise responsibility towards suppliers throughout the world. Virtually none of the respondents considers regional involvement superfluous, on the contrary: around 85% of citizens would like to see companies giving greater preference to regional products or services and contributing more to social projects in their regions. However, it is not just people in need here in Germany who should be helped: a good 80% of the respondents share the opinion that companies should be committed to providing emergency and humanitarian aid throughout the world.

Approbation is somewhat less widespread with regard to commitment to the world at large. While more than half of the respondents appreciate the promotion of culture, the sciences and the preservation of monuments and historic buildings, 23% of respondents view this type of involvement as superfluous. Shareholders and professional sportsmen and women languish in the final places in the fictitious support program. Respondents have most confidence that they will be able to get by alone and without additional support.

CSR activities: respondents set clear priorities

If Germans are asked which CSR activities should be paramount in any order of priority, regional suppliers achieve second place with 24% of the nominations. They are closely followed, at 19%, by care for subsequent generations, which companies can satisfy, most notably, with environmentally and climate friendly production methods. This is matched by responsibility for suppliers throughout the world, which also comes in at 19%.

Regional or global: job security is the deciding factor

Regarding the question of who or what should be particularly supported after the employees, answers vary significantly depending on the respondents’ future financial situation. Those who are worried about the main earner’s job attach more importance to companies concentrating on regional suppliers – arguably in order to secure local jobs through this means. Most notably those who are confident regarding the main earner’s job would like to see suppliers throughout the world supported. This group also contains more respondents who would like to let companies' shareholders receive a piece of the cake: 40% approve of corporate responsibility towards shareholders or other participants in companies, while the figure stands at 33% in the group of those who are concerned about their jobs.

The carefree and the anxious share the same views as far as commitment to employees is concerned. The workforce occupies the no. 1 slot, even though people rate this issue even more highly if they themselves view their future income as being at risk.

East and west: care for employees is paramount

The origin of respondents also plays a role in some CSR-related questions. The view is unanimous in both east and west that employees head the list. However, differences are apparent here regarding the question as to who comes next. It is true that both West and East Germans demand that suppliers be treated fairly but the focus is more regionally concentrated in the eastern part of the Republic. Just under 90% of respondents from Thuringia to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania approved of commitment to suppliers based around the company. One in ten even thinks this is the most important issue, compared with just under 5% in the west. As a result, regional suppliers rank just behind employees in terms of significance in the east. By contrast, people in the west appreciate commitment to employees throughout the world more and rate this aspect second in the ranking.

The issue of promoting the preservation of monuments and historic buildings, culture or the sciences is not a leading issue throughout the Republic but just under 60% of all respondents approve of projects of this kind. Companies for which art, culture or the sciences are close to the heart do well, particularly in the east – where two-thirds of respondents approve of actions of this kind compared with only half in the west. However, by and large, other issues are considered more important throughout the Republic.

The right method mix

But what does all this mean for companies which are looking for the right mix of good acts and acts, which are, at the same time, lucrative for all sides? The answer is likely to differ depending on the product, the place it is produced and the target group. But the following applies to all: any company that starts by caring for its own employees will not go wrong. Not only because it will then have the majority of people in Germany on its side but also because by offering its workforce good working conditions and paying them fairly, it will enable them to be free to think of all the other issues that “CSR” entails.

Data source: the GfK Association (Omnibus survey August/September 2009).

If you have any queries concerning this article or Compact, please contact Claudia Gaspar,  e-mail: