Every company has staff who want to further the responsibility cause. The smart firms let them do just that

Every company has staff who want to further the responsibility cause. The smart firms let them do just that

In 1998, a young Mark Gough was caught on CCTV lugging heavy sacks on his back from the offices of Reed Elsevier, the publishing company. Next day Gough, who was a part-time member of staff, was hauled before angry managers who thought he had been stealing computers. Gough explained that the sacks contained used paper. He was taking them to be recycled because the publisher did not have any means of doing so in-house.

Today Gough is Reed’s global environmental health and safety manager. He recalls his first steps into that role, saying: “There was no way of recycling paper in the office, which I thought was ridiculous for a publishing company. So I put the paper on my back every night in big white sacks and took it to the recycling.”

Gough has since gone on to convince Reed’s local, national and global management of the need to have an environmental plan. The “green team” of like-minded individuals that he started has blossomed too. It has grown from a small lunchtime caucus into a global network of more than 400 staff. Three-quarters of Reed's key locations in the world have a green team, which implements environmental programmes and suggests new ideas to save resources at the company’s sites.

Gough is one of a new breed of employee that is changing the culture of big business from within: the corporate responsibility champion. These individuals want the companies they work for to be ethical. And they are willing to give up their own time, for little or no financial reward, to achieve that goal. Now companies are harnessing the passion of these individuals to spearhead employee efforts on the environment, community investment and workplace issues such as diversity.

“Staff listen to other staff more than they do to someone from the very top,” says Nadine Exter, an associate of the Cranfield School of Management who has just written a guide to setting up a corporate responsibility champions network. Messages about the need to save energy, or provide equal opportunities for staff, sound more genuine, relevant and credible coming from colleagues than from a faceless corporate HQ, she says.

Exter says corporate responsibility teams have little experience of setting up champions networks. But some have been doing so “unconsciously”. She explains: “What they knew was that they had very little resource and needed a way to tap into existing [human] resources.” Corporate responsibility teams understand the need to engage employees on social and environmental concerns to achieve their goals, says Exter. Creating champions to implement and report on corporate responsibility strategies is one way to go from a “bolt-on” to a “built-in” approach to responsible business, she says.


Reed has a network of 250 champions. They coordinate the work of the green teams in their business units, setting up recycling initiatives, or meeting facilities managers to see how their locations can save water. Champions organise office events, such as second-hand clothes sales, and raise money for local charities. They also collect data on energy consumption and other corporate responsibility indicators, which they report to a central environmental team, headed by Gough. Champions share tips with each other through a corporate responsibility forum, which ultimately influences company strategy on social and environmental issues.

Companies wanting to set up a corporate responsibility champions network must first understand what would suit particular staff, Gough says. He argues that with employees that include, for example, the editors of the International Journal on Greenhouse Gas Control, it makes sense for Reed to delegate a lot of responsibility to its champions and green teams.

The role of champions differs between sectors. Tesco, for example, has 5,000 energy champions at its stores in the UK. The average-sized Tesco supermarket has six energy champions from a total staff of between 250 and 350 people. Champions tend to be duty managers, who make sure that stores use as little energy as possible. They are not required to collect data for reporting, but are simply “role models of good practice”, says Tesco climate change manager Rachel Solomon Williams.

In contrast, Tesco rival Sainsbury’s has no nominated corporate responsibility champions. The supermarket’s head of corporate responsibility, Jat Sahota, explains: “If you have CR champions some people think it’s not their job. We think it’s everyone’s job.” Instead of having designated champions, all Sainsbury’s staff are treated to a monthly video from chief executive Justin King, outlining the corporate responsibility issues to communicate to customers in store. Recent priorities include raising money for UK charity fundraiser Comic Relief, and getting customers to use fewer plastic bags.


A successful corporate responsibility champions network depends on strong communication between individuals involved, Exter says. There are a number of ways companies can achieve this: for example, setting up dedicated sections on company intranets with educational tools, chat rooms, case studies, project and reporting tools, and competitions for champions.

Alliance Boots, the chemist, uses its network to enable champions from business units across Europe to learn from each other. Each champion outside the UK is assigned a “buddy” – a responsible business expert from the UK, where Alliance Boots’s corporate responsibility work is well established – who is on a hotline to the champion should they need help. Each champion is also given a “friend” – a contact at local organisations such as the UK’s Business in the Community who can offer advice on specific local issues.

Describing the company’s 20 corporate responsibility champions, Alliance Boots’s head of corporate responsibility, Richard Ellis, says: “They are the focal point of CSR activity. That doesn’t mean they do everything, but they are the person who pulls the strings internally.”

Each of the 20 champions is a regular manager in his or her business unit of Alliance Boots. These individuals have an interest in but not necessarily much experience in corporate responsibility. They are not paid extra for this work, which mainly involves administering a corporate responsibility action group made up of managers in their business units, which together span 11 countries.

The number of issues that the action group covers depends on the country. So the UK corporate responsibility action group, which Ellis coordinates, has 23 issues to manage; the Russian group has eight. Issues differ across the group, according to where countries are on the “different stages of their CSR journey”, says Ellis. But the process is the same across the business.

For Ellis, the champions network means that he can go to any part of the company’s operations and find out what progress it is making on its corporate responsibility targets. The network also collects the information needed for Alliance Boots’s annual corporate responsibility report.

Companies such as Alliance Boots rely on their corporate responsibility champions volunteering their own time. Exter says that the most committed champions spend about five hours a week, on top of their day-jobs, on corporate responsibility work. This increases in the reporting season. She believes that in a recession it could get tougher for companies to ensure champions stay committed – if companies cut staff, those that remain will be asked to do more work, which could squeeze time they have for champions activities.

She says: “Pressure on existing staff to meet the same targets is going to grow.” Heads of corporate responsibility should make sure that the middle managers who are asked to implement targets “have some room to move”, she says.

Gough agrees that some of Reed’s champions may be harder-pressed for time in the near future. The challenge, he says, is “getting people to spend two hours at lunch time at a meeting, or getting them to call in to three or four conference calls a month”. But he feels that as most champions are personally committed to their work, they will by and large continue to do it – a view that seems to be shared by many corporate responsibility managers and directors.

Ellis says of champions at Alliance Boots: “They have not been press-ganged into this. They are doing something that they have a passion for.” The fear that champions could soon lose interest is misplaced, he says, because their motives for doing this work are deeply emotional. He explains: “It’s like if you support a football team and they lose a couple of matches, you still support the football team.”

Non-financial rewards

There are exceptions to champions receiving no financial reward for the corporate responsibility work, Exter says. TNT, for example, has a formal champions network each of whose members has a specific job description and is paid for what they do. And many champions in other companies make corporate responsibility part of their personal assessments – and will use their champions work to meet individual targets that contribute to their annual bonus.

Employees often see becoming a corporate responsibility champion as a smart career move. This is especially the case in companies where the senior management is committed to this work, and involved in overseeing it.

The bank Standard Chartered, for example, has 60 diversity and inclusion champions across its business in countries including Hong Kong, South Korea, India, China, Botswana, Zambia and Kenya. “Their key role is to ensure that the local approach is relevant in [their] country but at the same time consistent with group diversity and inclusion principles,” says the bank’s senior sustainability manager, Marianne Mwaniki.

The bank’s diversity and inclusion champions are high-performing individuals, either men or women, appointed by the chief executive of the country business. They have to create programmes and events to raise awareness of equal opportunities among staff. They must report to the local chief executive on their progress.

The career opportunities for individuals who take on such a role are clear, Mwaniki says. She explains: “They do not get extra financial rewards. They get recognition and access to very senior management in country.” Skills developed in the role include managing a project, engaging stakeholders, and dealing with the board, she says.

Not all staff will be interested in taking up a role as a corporate responsibility champion. But the experience of companies such as Alliance Boots, Reed, Tesco and Standard Chartered is that employees are able and willing to take up this challenge if given the opportunity – and often at no cost to the company. Heads of corporate responsibility having to make do on meagre resources should take note: they could be sitting on a wealth of talent, just waiting to be unleashed.

Employee engagement  employee training 

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