Positive social responsibility and the power of pro bono

Sophie Costello (right) with her team at Costello Medical

In this guest article, CEO of Costello Medical, Sophie Costello explains why good CSR is important for employee engagement and retention.

Understanding how individuals are affected by good corporate social responsibility (CSR), and the relationship between CSR and employee engagement, is key to encouraging workers to ‘bring their whole selves to work’. Yet, in 2019, a survey by Brother UK and Telegraph Spark revealed that only 16% of business leaders said that CSR was one of their top three business concerns for the coming year.

Socially responsible businesses are attractive to potential and existing employees, whether it’s championing women’s rights, protecting the environment or joining the fight against poverty on a local, national, or global level. Creating “a company for good” and delivering positive impact has been embedded in my leadership style since the very beginning. I’ve never been one to prioritise making profit as a key aim but rather focusing on treating staff well, rewarding them fairly, giving them opportunities and working with clients on projects that make everyone in the business feel good about what they do.

My belief is that people want to bring their whole selves to work because they have a sense of wanting to do more, which in our case, staff do through their work in healthcare, but all companies should provide opportunities for employees to do this in other ways.

The next generation of young recruits are beginning to join the workforce and they are in tune with what they want a company to stand for (by 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the workforce) – they are drawn to companies which offer something in addition to the day-to-day. Pro bono work is often cited in application letters or interviews as a key selling point for potential candidates – but the truth is, there are plenty of ways that companies can ensure that they are making a difference in everything they do.

I believe that if you let employees spend time on pro bono work, or even go as far as establishing a dedicated pro bono division, it can become a highly valuable asset to the business. However, dedicated pro bono teams are only able to deliver what they commit to do when supported across the company – they need to draw from the huge talent resource available to them, which can enable them to meet this commitment. This means that when employees are delivering profitable work to paying clients, the business can also deliver its pro bono work; obviously it needs the financial stability to be able to do the work for charities. Even if employees don’t work on the specific pro bono projects, their contribution is essential to driving positive impact.

The power of pro bono

Having a dedicated pro bono division can also give the team’s work more authority; the time assigned to charitable projects will then hold the same value as paid time, and so there is no disincentive to let someone go and work on a pro bono project. Leaders should be strategic when it comes to selecting charitable projects, ensuring that they will not only have real impact but will also resonate with employees across the business.

One option is to run an annual survey to ask employees what area they would like to focus on from a pro bono perspective and then put a call out for projects in those areas. At Costello Medical, this year, global health challenges and mental health were two areas our employees wanted us to focus on, which, given the pandemic, is understandable.

For me, this type of engagement with employees is essential as culture must be a priority and is what I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about. While the UK is currently experiencing a wave of employees moving between jobs because of dissatisfaction with their company’s culture, companies should be actively looking to improve the experience they give their teams.

It is essential to listen to what people are saying; even as companies grow, this can be done through annual employee surveys, informal conversations, and accessible leadership teams, so that leadership can make changes accordingly. Fundamentally, my ambition is increasingly to give my employees the life they want, not just the job they want. People should have the flexibility to ensure their job fits with their lives; so, whether that’s in the form of paid sabbaticals, secondments, part-time working or time off to volunteer, companies really should be trying to consider it all.

CSR covers so much more than the environmental issues with which it is so commonly associated. I think it is up to individual businesses how they interpret it and put “doing good” into action. In the height of the pandemic, it became immediately clear to all of us that working within the community had to be stepped up; in my opinion it is very much the responsibility of growing, global companies and they must commit to it – in action, not just words in a policy document.

This can be achieved through work experience programmes with local secondary schools. By taking on students who wouldn’t normally have connections or exposure to these sorts of opportunities, companies can commit to breaking down those barriers and showing the students how organisations work to unlock their future potential.

I am aware that my recruitment strategy has often deviated from standard industry practice to bring in people with experience. I fully believe that one of the best ways to nurture a company culture is to recruit people at the start of their careers. This way, employers can find the very best people and offer them the promise of an exciting career that they can be genuinely proud of.

If my experience has taught me anything, I have learned that as businesses grow, the greater the responsibility they have to give back, but their first responsibility should always be to their team and looking after them. However, the two responsibilities complement each other; employees are a company’s most valuable asset and if it can share this asset with others in the form of pro bono work, mentoring, volunteering and more, businesses will be able to create a greater, longer-term legacy while also fulfilling individuals’ desire to contribute beyond the positive impact of the client projects they work on.