In a private audience held this past weekend with Rome’s water and electrical company, ACEA, Benedict XVI expressed to local business leaders his priorities for improving true corporate social responsibility within business enterprises.
Prior to the pope’s speech, there was the usual protocol, fanfare, and flattery.
First was the thematic gift-giving. Benedict received a copy of the book “Entrepreneurs for the Common Good ” (published by the Christian Union of Entrepreneurs and Managers as part its series of short monographs “Christian Entrepreneurs for the Future of Europe“). ACEA’s board of directors then presented Benedict with special editions of the company’s “Values Card” and “Code of Ethics,” documenting the corporation’s written promises to promote “responsibility, transparency, fairness, spirit of service, and cooperation.” Then came the brief verbal exchanges between the pope and the corporate representatives, immediately followed by the precious and much-awaited handshakes and individual photo opportunities with the Holy Father, destined to become silver-framed trophies hung on ACEA’s boardroom wall and perched on the CEO’s desktop.
Finally, Benedict took a few spontaneous moments to congratulate ACEA on its centennial anniversary and offered a few kind words about its illumination of Roman and Vatican monuments and particularly about its corporate social responsibility program to improve water and electrical supply in developing countries.
All seemed like a perfect meeting between executive business and religious leadership. Surely ACEA’s board of directors and CEO were pinching themselves: They could not have expected anything better for their company’s public relations program. They finally got the “blessing” the wanted on their good enterprise.
But it was at this time that Benedict took advantage to sermonize and offer cautious words of advice to these proud corporate leaders, that is, on how businesses and their leaders should be truly socially responsible.
While presuming that Christian spirit may inspire any CSR program (instead of perhaps a company’s hidden agenda of image enhancement), Benedict underscored that any good social intentions and actions must be effectively rooted in allowing man to freely “produce, innovate, think, and build a future” for himself and his community. This is how we begin to be responsible for fostering a better, more dignified society.
These few words must be part and parcel of any corporate program and culture. They are to be truly lived — from the largest corner offices to the smallest cubicles, unlike the corporate personalities portrayed in the cartoon of this blog. These simple, core human values must gain priority over resolving external social concerns on much wider scales.
In addition, true social responsibility must be other-directed and gains its inspiration by nurturing “interpersonal relationships” within our own very work environment and immediate surroundings. In Benedict’s words, it must be rooted in “fair consideration of the expectations of our own workers, clients, suppliers and the entire (local) community”. Otherwise, behind the façade of a good CSR program may lay a selfish, individual-centered, profit-only seeking corporate mentality.
Oftentimes, while not necessarily so at ACEA, secularized corporate leadership is one that “exacerbates the concept of the individual” in which, consequentially, both workers and management end up “closed to themselves, retreating into their own particular problems.”
This is the very moral breakdown that brought about the great economic crisis. Certainly any good CSR program will fade away once the utilitarian need for a good public image recedes and if there is no true Christian inspiration behind the corporate mission in the first place.
As Benedict rightly says, even if ACEA executives have done much to act as good stewards while managing precious natural resources in a chaotic and ever-expanding Roman metropolis and have even done a fine job of providing valuable services for the environment and communities in poor countries abroad, they have really done nothing if they have not yet first promoted a dignified “human ecology” among their own thousands of employees, suppliers, clients and members of their local community.