Los Angeles — Typically, when employees urge their employers to take steps to, for instance, become more sustainability focused, get more involved with corporate philanthropy, or encourage corporate volunteering, they frame it as a potential business opportunity. In other words, doing good not only helps serve a cause, but can pay off by improving brand awareness, customer loyalty, and ultimately, sales. This is referred to as the “business case” for addressing social and environmental issues.

However, this is not necessarily the best approach, according to a new study, “The Money or the Morals? When Moral Language is More Effective for Selling Social Issues,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in February 2019.

The study asked over 400 U.S. employees if they have ever “spoken up,” urging their employers to take a stand on social or environmental issues. About half said they had. The study then asked how they did this, to help determine which approach was most successful. Among the ways were the following:

  • Making the business case for social issues, as discussed above
  • Telling their employers, it is the “morally right thing to do”
  • Persuading them that such a stand would fit in with the company’s values and mission.

Success was determined if their managers took efforts to address the social issue, including enquiring as to how much time, money, and resources it would require.

The researchers uncovered the following:

  • The business case for addressing social/environmental issues was the least practical approach
  • Convincing employers it was the morally right thing to do, was also found to be ineffective
  • However, pointing out that it was the morally right thing to do and fit in with the company’s values and mission, proved to be the most successful.

“In my work helping organizations become more sustainability-focused, I often find it is a ‘down/up’ process,” says Stephen Ashkin, CEO and Founder of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, Inc. “Employees start the process by encouraging their employers to take such steps. Now we know how they can do this most effectively.”

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