Defining terms

For a basic mapping exercise, you do not want to get bogged down in definitions. There isn’t time to conduct a thorough literature search and get to grips with the extensive research. But at the same time we want some understanding of the terms in use, and I have spent a bit of time looking into this.

There are a number of words and expressions in use that denote social responsibility and ethical conduct in organisations. Carroll and Shabana (The Business Case for Corporate Social Responsibility, 2010 page 86) mention corporate citizenship, business ethics, stakeholder management, sustainability and corporate social performance as concepts that complement, overlap and sometimes compete with CSR. These areas all share some common characteristics: most notably, they are seen as dynamic and applied, and therefore subject to change and difficult to define.

Guler Aras and David Crowther set out a number of definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR), emphasising the importance of ‘relationship’ (Aras and Crowther, Governance and Social Responsibility, 2012, p 22). They quote the European Commission which states that ‘CSR is a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis’ (EC 2002).

Along side the concepts of context and relationship, the criteria of ‘voluntariness’ is a common one: organisations are expected to go beyond minimum legal requirements in order to be deemed responsible.

At the same time, being ethical can be seen as intrinsic to all business practice, relating to values as well as actions. The following description is taken from the website of the Institute for Business Ethics:

“An organisation’s core ethical values and standards should underpin everything that it does and the way its employees conduct their everyday business. Business ethics is about ‘doing things ethically’. How an organisation approaches the social and environmental impacts of its business operations and its voluntary contribution to the wellbeing of the global and local communities in which it operates, is often known as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); it is often about ‘doing ethical things’. The IBE believes that an organisation cannot be genuinely responsible without an embedded and inherent culture that is based on ethical values such as trust, openness, respect and integrity. This is why the IBE prefers to talk about Corporate Responsibility (CR) as a wider, concern, rather than using the more limiting ‘social’ tag.”

Despite the difficulty of definition, organisational ethics and social responsibility have become increasingly important in recent decades, and they can be applied to organisations that are not commercial companies operating in the private sector.

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