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Debunking 11 controversial corporate responsibility myths

There are a number of what I believe to be myths bandied about as truisms in the area of corporate ethics. Here’s a few of them, and why they are more myth than reality: 

You have a responsibility to create jobs

myth is widespread around the world as richer markets – and their
politics – have felt the recent economic squeeze.

to feel this mythical job creation responsibility can grow very quickly, particularly in emerging markets if you are a foreign company. 

in the US and UK, amongst others, prefer to talk about “job
creators” rather than “useful products and services”, hence the

it is not true. You don’t have a responsibility to create jobs, no
matter what CEOs may feel the need to say when they are under
pressure, or comment on policy options or incentives.

have a responsibility to create useful and sustainable products and
services  that people need, in an ethical way, full stop. 

feel bad about that. Why should you?

You have a responsibility to pay corporation tax without complaint or

true. High corporation tax is a tax on the very jobs politicians are
so keen on business creating. It’s a ludicrous state of affairs. 

much money is held offshore that could be put to great use funding
research, innovation and risk taking, because of daft tax rules.

associations are generally left to speak out about this. But CEOs
have much more traction in the media. 

If corporation tax was 10 or
15 percent, companies would pay much more of it, and spend less on
accountants and lawyers to help them avoid the onerous rates of 20+%
that most countries impose so short-sightedly.

hard to understand how important this point is, particularly for
small business, unless you’ve seen it first hand. 

It’s so damn hard
to make a decent profit as a small company (I’ve run a few) that the
sight of 25% percent of that going to government, once you’ve paid
every other tax, is hard to take. 

This is particularly true when you would have
invested that money better yourself in creating new products and
services that lead to the job creation government loves so much.

rather than move country, or fiddle with structures and internal shuffling, why shouldn’t business speak out more
fluently, catalyse debates, (perhaps via associations) and at least
start a genuine conversation about what lower corporation tax could
do for improving both business and social outcomes.

You have a duty to your shareholders to maximise value to them first

myth is the strangest, and yet the most widespread of the lot. It has
never been true. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the evidence
here (3 min video) and in longer form here. This is an important point, so take a look. 

You need to “give back”

did you take, and why? What has giving back got to do with doing
honest business? I still see people talking about this, from
celebrities to CEOs. 

Unless you were a robber baron or gang chief, drug lord or general criminal, you shouldn’t have to see doing useful and important
things as “giving back”. It is condescending, accidentally
arrogant and reinforces a separation of how you make money and how
you behave.

Companies should leave policy to politicians and policy wonks

sometimes like to see themselves as islands of excellence in a messy
world. No matter how true this can be in some cases (and it can be,
in a localised way) if you see a bad system that is holding back
progress, you have a duty to try and change it. 

particularly true in the collaborative world of corporate responsibility
and sustainability. Governments are poorly stocked with talent, we
all know this to be largely true. 

modern politicians (the UK is a good example) are no more than PR
people who have never really worked. They need our help to make
smarter decisions. 

are lots of ways to do this. The point here is that you can’t afford, morally and
business-wise, to just sit on the sidelines and watch.   

Here’s a recent post where I went into a bit more detail on this area.

Certification is the answer

Whilst certificates of “goodness” suit our desire for simplicity, certification
has not been proven to scale. 

What we need are better/smarter large
scale systems (sustainable agriculture is a good example) rather than
just islands of excellence which can’t get into double digit market

is not a zero sum game, as some like to present it. Certification in
corporate responsibility and sustainability surely has a role to
play, but systems change has a much bigger one. Think about
agriculture and small holder farmers as an example. And no, guidance standards such as ISO 26,000 are not going to save the world, useful tools as they are. 

Training, technology, buying practices and incentives change will do more for struggling small farmers than
putting them in co-operatives and giving their products certificates.

If certification is the answer, it’s a very limited question that’s being asked. 

Consumers just need to be empowered in order to drive business

only. Lord Leverhulme apparently once said something like “I know
half my advertising works, I just don’t know which half”. 

thought technology and the internet would solve that measurement
problem, but it has not, and probably will not. 

Measuring what drives buying habits and motivations is still very nascent, at best.

decision making is so complex and has so many variables that much as
we would wish it otherwise, simply ’empowering’ consumers to make
better informed ethical choices or demands is very very hard to do at

I am sceptical it can be done at all. Better to change the systems
(or create new ones) than try to change people and
culturally-informed habits. 

There’s more on this here. There’s an interesting RSA animate video here too.

You’ve embedded CR into your corporate DNA

you haven’t. Almost no-one has beyond a handful of hero companies
whose experience, whilst inspiring, is impossible to replicate. 

doesn’t mean we should be depressed at all. No doubt your company has
made great strides in the last decade. 

the area is still quite new, and cultural change takes time, new and
reformed systems and incentives and consistent values-led

than say you’ve embedded CR, which many CEOs do, talk about how your
values are in line with the challenges of the 21st Century (and make
sure they are). Cart before horse doesn’t work.

Your vision, mission, and values  are clearly laid out and

unlikely this is true. Perhaps you are one of the few companies that
has done this well but there are not many of these. For some reason,
possibly due to multiple inputs, getting this right is really hard.
Even when companies get one part right, they often fail at
enunciating the others clearly. Here’s some further reading in a short presentation.

You have ‘sorted’ your sustainability or CSR strategy

You may think you have, because you have some 2015 or 2020 targets.
You may even have a holistic plan that covers vision, mission,
values, targets and objectives, all of which feed into a corporate

that doesn’t mean it’s ‘sorted’. It just means it’s good enough for
now, but must be revisited every few years to see which targets need
adapting, changing (some removing) and which new ones should come in
as issues emerge and your business changes. 

let your bosses become complacent about strategy. I’d also argue that
you can’t have a “CSR/Sustainability strategy”. 

have a business strategy, within which sustainability and ethical
decision making is a major part. 

You can’t credibly have both in
parallel, yet I know many companies that try to.

License to Operate is just for high impact companies

might have been true ten years ago, but it is no longer.

recently departed head of PR, Lesley Dach, calls it “freedom to
operate” instead.

idea being, presumably, to take out the compliance,
heavy-hand-of-the-state element conjured up by the world license. 

we call it, license to operate is really about sentiment. How do
important and influential stakeholders feel about your performance? 

is now the dominant paradigm in many mining companies, as it should
be. But it’s a valuable way to look at the world for other companies

at Starbucks in the UK and their tax controversy. Nestle (in the
past) are another example. Licence to operate is an important part of
your risk management. 

Despite what we’d like to think, corporate
responsibility and sustainability is today 70-80% about risk
management, and 20-30% about opportunity creation. 

all know that needs to shift in the coming years, and it is, slowly.
But let’s not kid ourselves, risk must be managed, not thrown into in
some ‘shared value’ PR pot and glossed over. 

risk as best you can whilst seeking opportunity. Licence to operate
is a really solid way to look at risk management, whatever industry you
work in. 


you are interested in online CR and sustainability management
training, debate and discussion on the above issues, take a look

These courses are all on-demand, so you learn when you have the time. 

management training on corporate responsibility – courses are now
available from Mallen Baker and Toby Webb

Getting to Grips with Corporate Responsibility (begins September 30 2013)

is an eight module comprehensive course covering the history of CR,
business case, employee engagement, community and NGO partnerships,
supply chains, communications, reporting, marketing and embedding CR.
(watch a 1 minute video)

Getting to Grips with CR Reporting (begins September 30 2013)

is a four module course looking at best practices in corporate
responsibility reporting that actually deliver for your company, for
stakeholders, and help improve business performance.
(watch a 1 minute video)

Getting to Grips with CR Communications (begins October 28 2013)

is a four module course looking at best practices in corporate
responsibility communications and marketing. The course looks
in-depth at best practice in CR and sustainability communications and
the tactics and strategies that deliver value for companies and
compelling stories to stakeholders. (watch a 1 minute video)

Got a question? Just contact us on 


  1. Tobias,
    Really interesting piece. I'm in synch on most of this — yes, companies need to get off the sidelines on policy, true, they haven't embedded just yet, etc.
    But one point on the taxes. I do think it's part of license to operate (or freedom to) to pay your taxes. I get ticked off seeing companies avoid all of this important contribution to a functioning society. I don't know the exact right number (10% or 15 or 25), but i know zero isn't right. Also, I don't think it's right to say that government taxation is somehow keeping companies from investing 'better than government would' as you say. Taxes are on NET income, after you've made your capital investments…
    But it's important to debunk some big misperceptions no doubt. Good job.
    Andrew Winston

  2. Excellent post.

    I agree with all the points, except your assertion that "You can't credibly have both [a business strategy and sustainability strategy] in parallel".

    Actually you can. Just because HR is integral to the business strategy, it does not mean a company should not have an HR strategy.

    Just as the HR strategy clarifies the employee value proposition, the sustainability strategy should clarify the social value proposition (or the company's response to societal challenges). While sustainability thinking should be integral to the business, a clear stand-alone strategy can provide a valuable framework for action in this (still emerging and frequently misunderstood) arena.

    In fact – ironically – the more innovative aspects of sustainability strategy (process redesign, new product development or unexpected partnerships that address societal challenges) often get diluted when a company embraces integration too early. In other words, before they really understand the difference between business-as-usual, sustainability-as-usual (compliance, cost-cutting and risk management) and the art of achieving competitive advantage through addressing societal challenges. Check it out for yourself.

    Within the first year, most companies (if they are honest) will notice a number of tricky issues arising in the sustainability arena. These can usually be tracked to trade-offs between short vs long term returns or the pesky realities of consumption-led growth.

    Here's where a stand-alone strategy can get really useful.

    In an integrated strategy, these tensions are easily ignored in favour of less challenging options. But if they are skilfully managed, these 'discomfort zones' can become a source of creative energy or innovation within a company. As Peter Senge pointed out a few decades back, change happens when tensions are brought into stark relief.

    By integrating too early, a company often suppresses the very source of innovative energy they need to shift their sustainability response onto a more transformative platform.

  3. Thanks for your comments Andrew and Nicola.

    Andrew, on tax, I take your point. As a small business person, it is a bugbear of mine. I probably took the point a little far. Actually the more important point is how much money could come where it is needed if corporation tax was at a lower rate. More tax would be paid, not less, if the issue was better managed in my view.

    Nicola, well said, a good point. I can see the argument as you make it. My point, not probably as well made as it might have been, is mainly that one sees a lot of lightweight 'CSR strategies' put out there as a substitute for actually having an integrated plan in the business, day to day. Your last point intrigues me, I will give that some thought.

    Thanks to both for your comments.