Virtue Signalling

If you want to practice good corporate social responsibility then you need to ensure that there is nothing you still do in your business that is, in fact, the antithesis of what you are saying. By Cathy Parker.

A good definition of virtue signalling is from the Urban Dictionary: “To take a conspicuous, but essentially useless action, ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.”
CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is a large and growing part of corporates thinking. It often is also referred to as a social licence to operate. A definition from the Financial Times is that CSR is: “A movement aimed at encouraging companies to be more aware of the impact of their business on the rest of society, including their own stakeholders and the environment.”
CSR can cover a range of issues including sustainability, diversity and inclusion, human rights, employment conditions including health and safety and many more.
Organisations need to approach CSR with a focus on being genuine – not just to create some good PR. The public is very quick to see and accuse companies of virtue signalling if the CSR is seen as pure spin rather than a genuine buy-in to be a good corporate citizen.
Some organisations, even if genuine around their CSR attempts, can still fall into the trap of tagging onto an event just to signal their virtue, rather than really embracing the message of the event.
The recent Christchurch shootings being but the latest event where some businesses miscued, or maybe their operational side was not fully connected with the CSR side. Air New Zealand being a case in point, where they spoke out early but were then charging horrendous fares for people needing to get to Christchurch.
They did rectify this quickly, but it required prodding from Grant Robertson and the press before they fixed things, resulting in needless negative publicity.
There is often a fine line where some parts of the community will regard an approach as a great social statement and others as virtue signalling. The recent Gillette advert, “The best a man can get” received both plaudits and brickbats, as did the Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad.
So, what might a genuine approach versus a virtue signalling approach look like?
Let’s take an example around Rainbow diversity. This should be about making sure your environment is supportive for Rainbow staff (and customers).
To ensure you really are doing this, going through the Rainbow Tick process would be an asset for larger organisations – highlighting where changes might be required so you can walk the talk.
Having a strong internal diversity group with direct connection with senior management would be another genuine approach.
On the other hand, virtue signalling might be attaching Rainbow logos to your website or participating in Pride events without taking the genuine steps to first change your internal culture.
Similarly, after an event such as Christchurch, making supportive statements around the Muslim community, when you don’t have programmes in place to accommodate Muslim staff in your dress codes and work practices would be virtue signalling.
New Zealanders, in particular, have highly tuned BS detectors, so if you want to practice good CSR then make sure you are genuine and have a strong programme in place to back it up before you go public. And ensure that there are not things you still do that are the antithesis of what you are saying. 

Cathy Parker is a director of Adrenalin Publishing, the owner of Management magazine. She also sits on a number of boards.

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