Even in Business, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

We are in an era where many businesses feel that they must project an image of social responsibility. This may be driven by management’s true desire to be a force of good, a competitive advantage, or as a way to attract millennial job candidates. Being perceived as being on the “wrong” side of an issue can have significant effects on consumer oriented businesses (see Chick-fil-A or Facebook). But is the impact of this corporate behavior?

There many consequences of a firm demonstrating social responsibility. These include:

1. Being socially conscious doesn’t really help sales. This is probably because just about every company promotes social responsibility in some way, so there is not much variance.

2. Companies that promote how socially conscious they are get more job applicants, particularly women. This makes sense since millennials are drawn to companies that share their values.

3. Those who apply for work at companies that promote socially responsibility are more productive than those who apply at companies who do not advertise that they are socially responsible.

4. Those who work for work for socially conscious companies are more likely to steal from them.

Wait—what’s that with #4? People who are generally more willing to work for a socially conscious company are more dishonest (steal, slack off, etc.) than other employees? Not quite, but when people do good things they sometimes feel as if that gives them a license to get away with stuff. Keep that in mind next time a leader of an organization that thinks it has a high value to society (religion, journalism, etc.) gets caught engaging in some pretty awful behavior.

So, if you are a company that wants to promote social responsibility to attract more productive workers, but you don’t want the bad stuff that comes with it, what should you do?

1) Reduce the amount of social responsibility messages after people have been hired. Once people are onboard, you don’t need to keep talking about how much good the company does—they get it. The continued presence of these messages makes moral licensing more prevalent.

2) I would assume that there are individual differences when it comes to moral licensing (most likely related to conscientiousness). And it so happens that conscientiousness is one of the personality variables that generally predicts job performance. So, it would be valuable for socially conscious companies not to take it for granted that their candidates are all good people. Rather, a validated test would likely help them select those who are less likely to look for an excuse to slack off.

Many business choices have unintended consequences. Being overtly socially conscious apparently does as well. However, companies can mitigate those consequences with some good planning and employee selection practices.

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