Want frontline employees to develop strong identification with your company?

New research hints at how, and shows the risks and rewards

By Bill Hatton

Just how important is corporate social responsibility (CSR) to your frontline employees? It turns out the answer could be crucial.

Here’s why: When employees value CSR at high levels, they have a strong intrinsic motivation that can either
be encouraged or discouraged based on external factors, such as management or customer support for CSR.
And conversely, if frontline employees don’t value
 CSR, they aren’t likely to change their opinion of their company or its customers based on support for CSR.

That’s according to a recent study of CSR and job performance by a team of researchers representing 
the fields of international relations, business/marketing, and behavioral sciences. At stake are two key employee- engagement concepts:

• How strongly customers identify with the organization. For example, “I’m an IBMer.” Employees who strongly identify as members of the company team are more likely to be highly engaged.

As the researchers put it, “The more employees entwine their sense of self with and that of the company, the more they view the successes of the company as their own and will perform on its behalf. Preliminary evidence for this expectation comes from participants in … qualitative research who claimed that a strong bond with the company motivates them to work hard and have successful dealings with clients.”

• How strongly customers identify with customers.

For example, “I’m an IBMer who cares about IBM customers.” Identifying with the customers’ needs generates a motivation to serve them more effectively.

“Employees who identify with the organization will adopt suggested workplace behaviors … and be motivated to support the company’s products and brands … this effect will be mediated by the employee’s customer orientation. Identification is known to encourage behaviors that benefit the collective. Thus, the more an employee identifies with the organization, the more he or she seeks opportunities to contribute to company performance,” stated the researchers.

“Since serving customers’ needs is a key way that frontline employees help the company maintain and deepen relationships with those customers, such employees may view their own efforts to contribute to customer loyalty as helping to drive long-term organizational success. Overall, we expect that organizational identification will be associated with a dedication to satisfying customer needs, which will in turn be related to job performance.”

Into the mix of these two concepts comes CSR. It turns out that when CSR is important to an employee, his or her identification with both the company and customers is very much affected, one way or the other, by management support and customer support (see Figure 1.)

How to apply this research

You’d no doubt agree this makes intuitive sense. People identify with others when they share the same values. That’s why it behooves managers to know what employees value, so they know what motivates them, so they can build the strong identification that triggers higher employee engagement. In the case of CSR, consider the following:

1. If the words/names CSR, corporate responsibility (CR), sustainability, and/or shared value don’t motivate a worker, have supervisors look for an individual topic that does. If the whole doesn’t motivate, perhaps the individual will. Usually, there is something that workers may consider a shared value with the company— something in the CSR set that gets them jazzed. Encourage managers to find that one.

Caveat: Managers are looking for opportunities to create greater identification, with CR as a motivation. In cases of workers who are already highly motivated by factors other than CR and not by CR, the company’s support for programs usually won’t impact them one way or the other. Some probing might be worth it to see if there are additional motivating factors (high performers tend to volunteer), but managers don’t need to insist on it.

2. If frontline employees show enthusiasm for CR programs, managers need to show support to create a lasting identification with the company. Again, the direct supervisor needs to understand that these workers will be turned off by low management support for CSR, and not identify with the company, but in turn are likely to respond enthusiastically when there is management support.

So the level of identification/ detachment is likely to swing wildly, depending on what support they see.

Bottom line: Supervisors should listen for enthusiasm, and if they find it, encourage support for these programs and worker participation.

3. If frontline workers who interact with customers don’t strongly identify with customers’ needs, managers have a choice. Workers are either not the right fit for the employee and company, or the motivating factor hasn’t been found. As with management support, customer support for CSR has a big motivating factor in encouraging identification from frontline employees.

Managers should probe for common values such as CR programs, in case a match can be found between the customers’ support and the frontline employees’ interest in CSR. An example is supply chains—if workers and customers can find common ways to reduce waste, fuel usage, or even team up with volunteer programs, there is more likely to be a lasting identification and relationship. Key: The common value between the customer and the frontline employee is usually there, if the parties are willing to look for it.

Source: Daniel Korschun, C.B. Bhattacharya, and Scott D. Swain (2014), Corporate Social Responsibility, Customer Orientation, and the Job Performance of Frontline Employees. Journal of Marketing: May 2014, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 20-37.

Posted September 16, 2014 in 25115