Calling time on social washing when it comes to investing in corporate culture and CSR

The increase of 'social washing' and lip service when it comes to ESG goals and corporate social responsibility has seen many brands' reputations go down the drain. Lisa Hollinshead, founder and CEO of Comms101, explains why is it so important to follow through on promises and pledges.

As a public relations professional for nearly 20 years, I understand more than anyone the importance of image. Whether personal or professional, image can be seen to be everything.

Whilst it’s absolutely true that image is important (that’s what PR is all about right?!) the thing that trumps this…


Is: Authenticity!

There’s absolutely no power in projecting an image, which isn’t real, or taps into virtue signalling, or lip service.

Research from The Media Store (cited from GWI Gen Z 2023, Nielsen CMV single source S02 2023, You Gov profiles) shows that the number one concern amongst Gen Z (above financial security, health and state unrest) is being cancelled. This is a concerning trend, that makes them more fearful of ‘being cancelled’ more than anything else.

Seriously, read that again!

With this as a key motivator for many Aussies aged 18 – 30, the question surely arises: At what cost?

Whilst the research shows that this is a rising trend and cause for concern amongst Gen Z, it can also be argued that this is also happening at a professional level and amongst workers aged 30+ too. Organisations virtue signalling, and checking boxes, to ensure that they don’t get cancelled. But what happened to actually walking the walk?

Research from QUT. Centre for Behavioural economics. What motivates Australians to volunteer study, shows that Millennials are motivated by a sense of community, material gains and new skills. Recruitment strategies that appeal to them are co-operated, working ‘with them rather than marketing ‘to’ them.

It also highlights that Gen X are motivated by meaningful experiences, feeling useful and meeting new people. Recruitment strategies that appeal are flexibility in volunteering requirements, volunteering through employer, planning for empty-nesting.

With this in mind, it doesn’t seem too surprising that organisations are offering volunteer leave days to employees contracts as standard across the board. The question is however, are they actually being used?! The answer quite simply is: no!

Today, I’m here to lift the veil on ‘Social Washing’, also known as virtue signalling – Or paying lip service to initiatives and perks, with no follow through. To put it simply, the practice of securing praise for an idea or statement, without providing any intention or substance behind it or to turn this into action.

I’ve worked in creative agencies spanning Manchester, London and Sydney for the past two decades and across the board, amongst my peers, culture is at the heart of the desirability of working for and with an organisation.

A cool client list, big shiny offices, or free chips and dips (and even all you can eat KFC back in the day) used to be enough to lure the best of the best talent, and more importantly – keep them.

This would mask over the long hours, selling your soul to the spreadsheet upon spreadsheet and latest launch campaign, client visit or new business proposal. Work was to be your priority, and your client is God.

Statistics show that if organisations invest in culture (and don’t just pay lip service to the idea of it), they will secure and retain the best talent: “83% of millennials would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues.” “78% of employees are more likely to trust, stay loyal and want to work for a company that leads with purpose.” – Porter Novelli’s 2021 Purpose Perception Study.

The problem is however, despite many organisations pledging an average of 4 x volunteer leave days per employee per year as part of their ESG commitment, only 10% of these days are actually being used (Volunteering Australia). There are a number of factors that explain why this is the case; Whether it’s the employee struggling to find an opportunity, and the organisation not supporting them in doing so. Or a fear of being perceived as ‘not invested’ in their role if they put their hand up to take a volunteer leave day, there is a significant lack of support and motivation for employees to take up these days which have been offered.

This doesn’t sit well with me.

Why? I’ll explain… When an organisation is offerring 4 x days incremental leave for prospective employees to volunteer and give back to their community, they are doing it disingenuely. Imagine if they offered an additional 4 x days annual leave, but they didn’t support the employee in taking them, made them feel uncomfortable asking to take them and then wiped them off the tally each financial year. I’m confident that people would have something to say.

The fact of the matter is that when people do good, they feel good, 95% of volunteers say that helping others is directly related to happiness (Volunteering Australia). Employers know that, that’s why they offer these incremental days as a value-add for employees. To then not follow through with this, or provide adequate support, tools or training for line managers and/ or HR to implement them, is just plain wrong.

‘Social Washing’, or paying lipserice to achieve the holy grail of a peceived ‘cool corporate culture’ simply isn’t going to cut it any more. Workforces want to see intention supported by action, full stop! Chips and dips and cheap wine at 4pm, and empty promises of leave days simply aren’t even close to where we need to be.

Thankfully, there are light bearers out there, companies who are absolutely walking the walk. Tracksuit have SPARK fund (Spread Positivity, Appreciation and Random Acts of Kindness) where every team member is given 5 credits (which = $5) a week to spend on someone else in the team, and is able accrue the money over time or pool credits together with others to gift something meaningful to someone. More than 10K has been spent since September on supporting bereaved colleagues, celebrating new parents, etc, which is pretty epic!

Canva is renowned for its in-house initiatives to invest in their people and cultre, and continues to attract hot new talent as a result.

I am keen to higlight that I am not merely paying lip service to this issue either. I run OneAnother.io with my co-founder Chris Ingate, which empowers our members to give back and connect with their community. Our CSR SaaS solution supports organisations in ensuring that volunteer leave days are utilised and benefit the employee, as well as the organisation.

Volunteer opportunities range from traditional volunteering, we have over 100 Sydney based and national charities on the platform calling out for volunteers. We also have community focused peer to peer volunteering, as well as skilled based volunteer opportunities. The platform works to understand the employees motivations, values and what their purpose is and support them in putting it into practice, and leaving a legacy. The result: The organisation has a more productive member of the team, who is leaning into their purpose and they will stick around as a result.

I call time on organisations offering these days without an intention to follow through. If they’re not willing to foster a culture where taking these days is encouraged, then quite simply – they shouldn’t offer them at all.

I believe that volunteer leave days should appear on payslips, the same as any other leave day. Let’s stop paying lip service, and turn intention into action.

It’s not about the fear of being cancelled, it’s about being the change you want to see. If you don’t walk the walk, your best talent will talk with their feet and work for an organisation that invests in its culture at the core of the organisation, which its team is proud of.

Lisa Hollinshead is founder and CEO of Comms101.


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