by Gael O’Brien

What does Thanksgiving have to do with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? Until a few weeks ago I didn’t make the connection. Then I saw two online petitions, “Tell Target to Save Thanksgiving and “K-Mart: Allow Employees Time off on Thanksgiving Day” as well as a Facebook page “Boycott Black Thursday: Put Employees and Families First.”

K-Mart Black Thursday AdOf all national holidays, Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November, seemed sacrosanct; after all it was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the proclamation in 1863 making it a national “day of Thanksgiving and praise.” The holiday has traditionally been a time when all but essential businesses are closed so that extended families and friends can come together to appreciate the things they are grateful for and each other.

While it is unlikely the petitions will carry weight – many retailers beside Target and K-Mart are encroaching on the holiday this year, planning to be open for all or part of the day and requiring millions of employees to come into work. However, the petitions underscore an irony these retailers would do well to recognize.

In pursuit of short-term profit, the companies open on Thanksgiving are very likely losing capital with their employees. To make matters worse, retailers’ explanations for being open don’t ring true. While some justify being open to serve shopper demand, if National Retail Federation estimates are accurate, only about 18 percent of Thanksgiving weekend shoppers will physically shop in stores on Thanksgiving day. (Arguably the holiday wasn’t their only option to shop that weekend.) All of this is about chasing profit and not much likely at that. The net result will make it all the easier for employees to discount the adage that they are their employers’ most important assets.

Add to the mix mall owner bullying to force stores to open on Thanksgiving evening or pay an hourly fine and it seems more like a dog chasing his tail than a strategy that builds trust and loyalty. Unlike the employees who are needed on a holiday to keep hospitals running for patients, employees spending Thanksgiving staffing sparsely-shopped stores or malls won’t feel much of a greater purpose. It is unlikely they will be helping build customer loyalty either. An Accenture survey indicates that 68 percent of consumers shopping Thanksgiving day or evening are likely to participate in “showrooming” – going to a store to check out a product and then looking online for a better price and more often than not, buying it online.

Which brings us back to CSR. It isn’t just a question of whether “family friendly” is part of a CSR footprint; it is also about looking at the drivers of the footprint to make sure companies are really recognizing and taking responsibility to protect their assets.

Companies (often encouraged by external pressures) have been extending what they mean by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in their ecological, carbon and social (human rights etc.) footprints, as well as their handprints and other forms of measurements. Whether employees are part of a social footprint or a handprint….they are a precious resource not to be squandered.  While it is essential to pay attention to the external measurements of responsibility, there are subtle infrastructure needs as well.

The external measures are more visible. A recent “Doing Well by Doing Good” survey, as well as a consumer survey to improve ethical supply chains, indicate the willingness of many consumers to pay more for products produced under good working conditions and environmental initiatives. To demonstrate they are good neighbors, company websites identify their philanthropic generosity, sustainability track record and the impact of employee volunteerism among other outcomes.

All of which suggests that “responsibility” when it is seen by the company as a win for its business as well as society is a no brainer. However, when CSR is pitted between short-term-profit gains versus long-term benefit — as is often the case – making the call gets much more complicated. And recent memory includes many illustrations when the short-term won with horrific unanticipated consequences. (Think BP’s  Gulf Oil spill  or GM’s  ignition switch failure, for example.)

Often the impact of short-term profit winning out is subtle –with damage to an infrastructure that may not even register as a CSR issue at the time. The rush to take over Thanksgiving as a business opportunity seems just one of those situations.

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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