Adapted with permission from The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil by Christine Bader (Bibliomotion, March 25, 2014).
How do I get a job in corporate responsibility? Are my skills and interests a good fit for the field? And whether explicit or implied is always the million-dollar question: Will I be doing meaningful work or superficial public relations?
BSR and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre post jobs on their websites relevant to their subject matter. Beyond those specialized sites, it can be hard to find the true Corporate Idealist jobs – the ones focused on the challenges at the heart of the business – since depending on the industry they might be in procurement, privacy, safety, or any number of other functions, making them difficult to search for.
The absence of a single clear label presents a challenge that is actually a blessing. First, there are so many kinds of roles that can positively shape a big company's impact that there should be opportunities for Corporate Idealists of many different skill sets. Law, consulting, and even accounting firms are developing CSR and sustainability practices. A number of people on my conference calls say, "I want to get into CSR;" my first question back to them is "Okay, but what do you want to do?" My career so far has involved traipsing around villages, setting up partnerships with nonprofits, managing expert studies, developing internal policies and procedures, and internal and external communications in various forms. What skills are priorities to develop and strengthen?
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, a job with a "CSR" or "sustainability" or "human rights" label may not be the right one for someone looking to gain increasing influence in a company. Every company is different, but Ellen Weinreb, one of the first recruiters to focus on sustainability, sees an overall trend away from those labels. Ellen told me that when she started her practice in the mid-2000s she was hired to recruit senior CSR professionals by companies seeking "a certain level of expertise that they weren't able to find easily, meaning that there were plenty of eager MBAs who said they wanted to do this work or might have had a three-month internship, but there weren't that many people who had started up and run a program." But now she is seeing companies embed sustainability in other corporate functions, so the CSR specialist roles are more junior. "The sustainability office is going away. It doesn't mean that sustainability is going away, but it means that the stand-alone siloed office is now being integrated." Integration is good news for sustainability, but can make it more challenging for Corporate Idealists to find a role.
Some Corporate Idealists see hints of their work in their childhoods. At the age of 10, Ed Potter saw that the migrant workers on his older cousin's grape farm in western New York State were sleeping in their cars. He leveraged his paper route earnings to coax money out of his father and other relatives, and over the subsequent three years enlisted his cousins to help build family housing for the workers. Fifty years later, he would still be working on labor rights – for The Coca-Cola Company.
Others became Corporate Idealists later in their career. John Sherman had worked for a multinational utility for 22 years when his phone rang on January 2, 2001. There was an explosion at one of its facilities; three employees were engulfed in flames. One passed away after a few days and the other two survived.
As one of the company's head lawyers, John was responsible for defending the case. It went to mediation, and John was startled by his own reaction facing the two daughters of the deceased employee.
"The only thing I could think of doing was tell them how honored I was to be in their presence and how profoundly sorry I was," John told me. "One of his girls started to cry, and I have two girls of my own. It profoundly affected me." That was the turning point for John. He was a self-proclaimed "child of the late '60s" whose wife had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Like many idealists, when kids came along John's priorities changed, and he went into law and a stable company job. Two decades later, this tragic accident brought out the activist in John that had been dormant for so long.
He began to research what other companies were doing on social responsibility, and in 2005 seized the opportunity to represent his company on the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR). Modeled on the Business Leaders Initiative on Climate Change, BLIHR brought together a dozen companies from different industries for quarterly discussions about human rights, often with external experts and activists. John became one of BLIHR's most active participants and champions. After he retired from the utility in 2008 he joined me on the team supporting the UN special representative on business and human rights. John had found his community, people like him who found themselves in corporate life and still wanted to do good in the world, which he called "liberating."
Other Corporate Idealists attribute their jobs to happenstance. After following her boyfriend to San Francisco with an international affairs degree but no job, Laura Rubbo landed a two-week temp position as an administrative assistant to the senior vice-president of sourcing at Gap Inc., just as he was considering a new code of conduct for Gap suppliers. She ended up staying there for seven years and is now a senior director in the International Labor Standards department at Disney.
All of these Corporate Idealists have stories that are unique in their details but not in their themes. All of us wanted to make a positive difference in the world, and through a combination of searching and happenstance found our way into these roles.