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Is the CSR Manager dead?

In recent months I have seen a number of opinion pieces asserting that, since CSR should ideally be embedded in corporate strategy and culture, there should no longer be any need for CSR managers. In my view, this completely misses the point. There are other areas of business that are considered to be everybody’s responsibility and yet nobody is suggesting that the subject-matter experts are not needed. A company where all staff take responsibility for controlling costs does not fire its finance team, nor does a company with a strong health and safety culture dispense with the services of its health and safety manager. Indeed, one might argue that companies with senior subject-matter professionals are more successful at embedding the principles of their area of expertise into the business, since there is a dedicated person or team creating the structure, narrative and performance metrics that are necessary to weave it into the daily work of people in other disciplines.

There may still be companies where having a CSR manager is seen as a kind of “ethics offsetting” – making CSR the responsibility of one person so that none of the others need concern themselves with it - but this approach is simply untenable in these days of the connected consumer with strong views on fairness and transparency. But effective CSR is too complex – and arguably too important – to be approached by simply writing it into everybody’s job description. Somebody needs to be scanning the horizon for emerging social or environmental risks, keeping abreast of new legislation, looking for opportunities to demonstrate leadership and drive momentum towards ever-higher standards of ethics and transparency, not just in their own organisation but across business in general.

Of course, whether CSR Manager is the correct title for somebody with this role remains moot. Terminology has long been a challenge, not least because the landscape is constantly changing. When I first began working in this area, the headline issue was the ozone layer and the internet hadn’t even been invented. These days enlightened business leaders are expected to deliver data-driven responses to a wide range of environmental and social challenges, voluntary initiatives and disruptive business models in an era of radical transparency and consumer activism. In setting their strategy they have to determine materiality, align with frameworks like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, engage meaningfully with disparate stakeholder groups and embed processes and metrics that deliver against publicly-stated goals and targets. Whatever name we choose to give them, it’s hard to see how all of this could be achieved without the support of experienced subject-matter experts.