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Don't mistake corporate social responsibility for corporate decency

By Shandel McAuliffe | |8 minute read
Don't mistake corporate social responsibility for corporate decency

When we talk about companies ‘doing the right thing’, we often think of big initiatives or sweeping gestures: an ambitious environmental program here, a charity donation there. While businesses should be doing their best to give back to society, the mere existence of these highly visible external actions doesn’t always tell us about who the company is at its core.

Sure, maybe they are making bold moves to combat climate change, but they could also suffer from an exceedingly toxic internal culture, which may in turn affect the lives of employees and their families.

Decency doesn’t mean being ‘nice’. It doesn’t mean shying away from the heart of issues, or always agreeing with others. Decency is something more fundamental. Decency reveals itself both in outwardly visible actions as well as in ways that are much more subtle. It’s about always trying to do the right thing by one another, even when no one’s looking.


As we emerge from the turmoil of the pandemic lockdowns, decency will be a key differentiator for businesses. A lot has been said about the ‘Great Resignation’, but from what I’ve seen in Australia, I think of it more as a ‘Great Re-evaluation’, a moment in time where people are questioning just how they want to spend their working lives.

More people are trying their hands at becoming entrepreneurs, or they’re looking for more fluid working arrangements, or a role that will be more fulfilling. In this kind of labour market, a corporate culture of decency can be the tipping point that brings in a new hire or retains an existing employee.

However, given the somewhat intangible nature of decency, fostering it in a corporate setting requires a nuanced approach, and an appreciation of the fact that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to do it.

Encourage decency at the top, but don’t make it ‘top-down’

It’s all well and good to say that we should value decency, but it’s not something that can be mandated by edict. It needs to start with a company’s leaders setting the tone, and then ensuring that this outlook is reflected at all levels of the company, whether it’s in hiring practices, people management, or conflict resolution.

When employees feel that they’re being treated with respect and decency, they’re also more likely to act accordingly. Ultimately, decency begets decency.

While these values may need an instigator, they shouldn’t be forced. Genuine cultural change can be slow and requires dialogue, leading by example, and acknowledging complexities. But once it permeates an organisation, it’s much more likely to self-perpetuate and stay in place.

Reward cooperation, not competition

Perhaps one of the biggest impediments to a culture of decency is internal competition between employees. It’s a natural human trait that can be compounded by promotion processes that rely heavily on KPIs.

Behaviours that foster good relations between employees such as cooperativeness, compassion, and supportiveness are more difficult to quantify, but if you care about a workplace where decency is valued, these qualities need to be recognised and rewarded.

This is not to say that these are the only qualities that we should focus on when we’re looking to promote someone, but we also need to recognise that personal ambition and the ability to cooperate aren’t mutually exclusive.

We find that employees at all levels of the company do best when helping each other be great.

Our culture of collaboration and collective growth allows us to be externally – rather than internally – competitive. An employee culture of ‘sharp elbows’ tends to result in a battered and bruised workforce, rather than one that feels supported and unified in its goals.

Make decency a foundation – not just an add-on

In a time of upheaval, growing internal and external expectations, and changing cultural norms, many corporate entities are rushing to demonstrate their awareness and elevate how they practice inclusion and care.

While commendable, doing right by employees (and communities at large) should be a consistent guiding principle, rather than a sudden response to the changing tides of culture and other social forces. An enduring ethos of decency, regardless of what’s happening in the world more broadly, promotes a sense of trust and safety internally and lends greater credence to companies’ efforts to tackle big societal issues.

At its most fundamental level, a foundation of decency also means that complex issues can be discussed openly, with empathy, in an environment where everyone can have their voices heard.

Decency shouldn’t require inducements

As a company focused on building a sustainable economy where everyone can prosper, we’ve found that a greater sense of empathy among our employees allows us to have a more open-minded, human-centric approach when designing our solutions.

This year, we released new research revealing that implementing sustainable business practices is considered by leaders to be the next significant challenge faced by Australian organisations.

We found that of the 51 per cent of Australians currently either actively looking or considering new employment opportunities in 2022, almost half (43 per cent) say they would not work for an employer who did not have an active sustainability plan in place. In addition to this, a safe workplace where employees’ contributions are respected is crucial, they’re also more likely to embrace new ideas and innovate in ways that drive true business impact.

We all want to be treated decently. To say that this very central trait doesn’t need to be encouraged in our offices and in our boardrooms is to say that decency isn’t important in the places where we spend a great deal of our time and effort. Quiet, modest decency has been overlooked for too long in the business world, but if we want to create enduring, happy teams, that has to change.

Don’t be decent because it’s good for the company. Be decent because it’s good for us all as humans.

Nada George is the vice president, people and capability, Australasia, at Mastercard



Your organization's culture determines its personality and character. The combination of your formal and informal procedures, attitudes, and beliefs results in the experience that both your workers and consumers have. Company culture is fundamentally the way things are done at work.

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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