A key priority for a socially responsible business is to develop and maintain strong and mutually beneficial relationships with its community. Businesses that take an active interest in community well-being can generate community support, loyalty and good will. This is often referred to as building your “social license to operate”, an important business objective for any business.
Businesses engaging in community relations or community involvement typically conduct outreach to the community aiming to prevent or solve problems, foster social partnerships, and generally contribute to the community quality of life. They also participate in community relations to help improve their business by getting valuable community and other stakeholder input.
Businesses have relationships in their local communities, sharing common interests. As such, it is valuable to spend some time considering how to leverage your relationships on mutually beneficial initiatives. It is possible to enhance business performance, profitability and your reputation through your community involvement efforts.
Your community relations priorities will depend on the local circumstances and your business strategy, competencies and assets. You will want to consult others, including your employees and representative community groups, to help you determine where to invest time and resources in your community relations program.
A few key areas which any business might wish to consider include the following activities:
- Social Hiring
- Stakeholder Engagement
A fourth area, community giving, volunteering and partnering is considered in a separate section.
An important community involvement objective is to ensure your premises, products and services, and communications are free of barriers, enabling all people to use them independently, regardless of one’s ability, gender, age, ethnic background, etc. Businesses can show their commitment to inclusion by welcoming everyone so that all community members feel included and a sense of belonging. It means that everyone can actively participate in community life and can be recognized as having something to contribute. This is an important consideration, especially, for people with disabilities, the focus of this section.
People are deemed to have a disability if they have “difficulties with daily living activities, or [if] a physical or mental condition or health problem reduces the kind or amount of activities they can do”Note 1. It can include being deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, having speech impairments, mobility impairments such as difficulties walking long distances or standing for long periods, agility (reaching or bending) difficulties, psychiatric disabilities, and intellectual and learning disabilitiesNote 2.
With an aging population, disabilities are expected to increase amongst employees and customers. Businesses should ensure that all those they employ or serve are treated equally. With one in seven Canadians having a disability (14.3% of the general population and 43.2% among adults over 65Note 3) this makes good business sense.
(The topic of workplace diversity is covered in detail under Employee Relations and Social Hiring. This section focuses on customers and community members, though most measures to promote accessibility and inclusion for consumers and community members will benefit employees with disabilities as well.)
You will want to ensure your business is physically accessible, which will benefit others including parents with children’s strollers. Barrier-free access involves going beyond minimum building code requirements to minimize barriers and ensure meaningful access. Features such as low counters, accessible washroom facilities, slip resistant floors, visual fire alarms, high contrast signage and Braille, large print and tactile lettering are some of the routes to making your premises accessible.
Accessibility implies also looking at the usability of your products and services. “Universal design principles” refers to a design approach to products and environments to make them usable and effective for everyone (universal). Products which follow universal design principles are equitable and flexible in use, simple and intuitive, and require low physical effortNote 4. A number of product and service “accessibility” innovations that we take for granted these days include low floor buses equipped with ramps, wide interior doors and hallways, closed captioning television, etc. Try to incorporate this notion of universality into your day to day operations to create a safe and more inclusive environment and product or service array. Anticipate the needs of your disabled customers and make adjustments to make it possible for them to use your products and services.
The way you communicate with your customers can also improve the customer experience for those with disabilities and others. Respectful communications include speaking directly to the person and not their attendant; use of language which puts the person before the disability (e.g., not a “wheelchair user”, but a “person who uses a wheelchair”), and asking before helping. Web communications should follow Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines, the international standard for web accessibility.
Some businesses seek to become “disability confident”, by advancing social inclusion for people with disabilities. The UK Employers’ Forum on Disability promotes this concept to leading businesses as a company which:
- Understands how disability affects all aspects of their business - people, markets, competitors, suppliers, communities and key stakeholders
- Creates a culture of inclusion and removes barriers for groups of people
- Makes adjustments which enable specific individuals to contribute as employees, customers and partners.Note 5
Given technology advances and population demographics, people with disabilities are living longer and becoming a greater presence in the marketplace. Companies which can capitalize on this trend by making their premises, products and communications more accessible will be able to secure future market opportunities and grow their business.
Companies seeking to make a direct and meaningful contribution to poverty reduction and economic and social inclusion may be interested in opportunities to hire people who face labour market barriers because of a physical, mental or developmental disability, mis-matched skills, lack of work experience or skills, long-term unemployment, lack of credential recognition, age, culture or language, etc. People with such employment barriers – something that prevents or creates a problem with getting employment – have often been out of the workforce for a number of years and / or struggle with various issues preventing labour market attachment.
“Social hiring” is a commitment on the part of an employer to proactively recruit employees with employment needs. There are many routes to finding quality candidates for consideration. You might prefer to go through a government-funded employment service agency, directories of which are listed in the Resource Section below. These programs, which are found across Canada, can assist employers with recruitment, pre-screening and sometimes follow-up services, often helping to reduce recruitment costs. Alternatively, a small business could target specific disadvantaged groups, such as youth, new immigrants, or people with disabilities, and locate the local or provincial resource agency which can provide the necessary hands-on support. Sometimes the employment organization can help the business access government wage subsidy or other incentive programs, to offset some of the costs and create greater value-added for the firm. In this case, the expectation would be that the subsidy would lead to a permanent position with the employer, once the subsidy ended.
Many Ontario-based Active Green & Ross' locations, a tire and auto repair franchise, hire entry-level employees through non-profit employment agencies which place people who have experienced and overcome employment barriers. For example, about one third of the employees in the two locations in Barrie, Ontario, have been referred through a "Job Connect" non-profit employment program. The small business owner has found this approach to be more effective since employees are pre-screened before they are referred, are often provided with training and skill development before they are placed, and can access supports to help them retain their jobs. Taken together, these elements have led to more successful placements and improved retention for the business.
BC-based Key Food Equipment Services, a repairer of commercial food equipment in western Canada, needed someone in their head office to complete important tasks that "fell between the cracks". They recruited a person with a developmental disability from a non-profit employment service initially as part of a paid work experience program. He started filing customer invoices in the office and bagging and tagging parts in the warehouse. He proved to be a very capable worker and was subsequently hired on as a permanent employee with increased hours and duties. He now performs a daily cyclical parts inventory count and stocks and picks parts.
Stakeholder engagement is the process of listening and talking to your stakeholders – typically employees, customers and community members – about their issues, concerns and needs, and also the business’ important directions and significant decisions. This will help to better meet their needs and help you to develop more robust and lasting business outcomes. More and more businesses are realizing it is important to listen to their key audiences to determine market opportunities, manage risks and help innovate their products and services. In addition to the every-day stakeholders of employees, customers, and community, stakeholders can include other groups you deal with as a business such as suppliers, governments, regulators, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), investors, industry associations, media, indigenous people, and others. Basically, stakeholders are those who have a direct or indirect stake in your organization and its decisions and activities.
Stakeholder engagement can help you improve communication, facilitate buy-in on projects, generate community support, and tap into additional information, data and ideas. Listening to your stakeholders’ concerns and desires can help you to take into account their different priorities and perspectives. It can secure your “social license to operate”.
Stakeholder engagement works when the business genuinely seeks input; it does not work if the process is used to issue-manage or influence groups.
As an example of community engagement and consultation, when developing its corporate social responsibility strategy in 2008, Assiniboine Credit Union in Winnipeg, Manitoba, asked seven well-networked community and business leaders to each prepare a short written briefing on the top three issues facing the community and the leadership role the credit union could play in their resolution. Based on an analysis of these reports, poverty, climate change and skills / labour shortages were identified as the top social, environmental and economic issues to be addressed and a number of leadership opportunities were identified for the credit union. This informed the focus of Assiniboine’s CSR strategy. To recognize their contribution, the credit union donated $1,000 to each organization or another non-profit of their choice.
The first step to advancing accessibility and social inclusion is to adopt a mindset that everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, should be treated equally and according to their needs. With this perspective, involve people with disabilities, their families and friends, in determining your approach whenever you can. Ask your customers for their view. Contact local disability and access groups for their advice. Technical institutes or university departments may be able to help you with the market research and product development required to adapt your current suite of products to those with physical disabilities.
As you make your products, services, premises and communications more accessible to people with disabilities it will be important to accompany these measures with disability awareness training for your staff to engender comfortable interactions. Remember to ask if and how to help and tailor your actions to the response.
People with disabilities and their support communities have high expectations of how they seek to be included in community life. It is important for a socially responsible business to view people with disabilities as potential customers and employees; not as charitable causes.
Social hiring is a means by which a firm can leverage a traditional business function (employment) to achieve social goals. Small or large firms have the opportunity of hiring people who have employment needs. The first step is to identify a suitable position, which might require some task or workplace accommodation, then to research the appropriate community or provincial organization to help you with a job-match. If your priority is to hire youth with employment barriers, you may wish to contact youth agencies; if your priority is people with disabilities or new immigrants you may wish to contact those organizations. The Resources section below lists the provincial government-funded non-profit employment services which can also help you in your recruitment efforts.
When beginning to consult and engage your key stakeholders on a new business initiative, or simply to get their feedback, concerns and ideas, you may first wish to “map” out the stakeholders that are directly and indirectly positively or negatively impacted by your business or your business decision. Brainstorm all those you think my have an interest in your decisions and activities. Think also of stakeholders that might represent environmental concerns or the views of “future generations”.
Clearly define the “scope” of the consultation and engagement to help frame the discussion. You may wish to hold meetings or focus groups, conduct interviews, establish advisory committees, or set up an interactive website or feedback email to engage your stakeholders in dialogue on your sustainability performance, or decisions you need to make.
After the engagement process, provide a summary of the consultation to participants, and to the public if possible, listing the feedback received and reporting on how the results of the engagement are being actioned. This accountability will demonstrate to your stakeholders that you valued their time and input and show how their participation influenced your decisions.
Builds Social License to Operate
Your community relations can help improve your business reputation and public image with the community and other stakeholders. This can be key for your continued operation, an expansion, increased sales, securing regulatory support, etc. Also, it can help build profile and trust with your stakeholders, fostering loyalty and support in both the good and bad times.
Employee Recruitment, Retention and Morale
Businesses that have strong community goodwill are better able to attract and retain employees. Employees prefer to work for businesses that make a difference in the community and happier employees are usually more motivated, engaged and productive.
Companies that hire people facing employment barriers can realize business benefits from their decisions. For example, studies have shown that people with disabilities can be as productive and reliable as any employee, while having better attendance records and fewer accidents than their colleaguesNote 6. Other research reveals that when a business is seen to be a good employer of people with disabilities and one which welcomes customers, enhanced staff morale, team development and reputation can resultNote 7.
Innovation and New Markets
Businesses which are in touch with their community and other stakeholders are able to capitalize on new market trends and innovation opportunities. Through networking and other community contacts, businesses are likely to generate new business ideas, sales leads, and partnering opportunities.
One estimate of the purchasing power of people with disabilities and their families comes in at $25 billion annuallyNote 8. People with disabilities and their immediate families, including mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands, represent about 53% of the Canadian populationNote 9. Businesses that become “disability confident” in hiring and serving people with disabilities can speed their innovation and broaden their customer base.
Businesses that hire people from immigrant communities can tap into their international networks, skills, communities and languages, giving the firm a local and global competitive advantage.
“The Disability Communication Guide”, by the Employers’ Forum on Disability
“What About Disability” is a guidebook by the Employers’ Forum on Disability.
Employment Service Agency Directories:
Industry Canada’s CSR website provides information on developing a stakeholder engagement program.
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. 2010.Advancing the Inclusion of People With Disabilities (return to reference 1.)
Disabled Women’s Network Ontario. Barrier Free Employers (return to reference 2)
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. 2010. Advancing the Inclusion of People With Disabilities (return to reference 3)
The Centre for Universal Design. 2010.The Principles of Universal Design (return to reference4)
Employers’ Forum on Disability. 2010. Disability Confidence (return to reference 5)
Employers’ Forum on Disability. 2010. What About Disability? A Need to Know Guide for Small Business, (return to reference 6)
Employers’ Forum on Disability. 2010. What About Disability? A Need to Know Guide for Small Business, (return to reference 7)
Bill Wilkerson. 2001. Business Case for Accessibility, p. 4. (return to reference 8)
Study conducted by returnondisability.com referenced in a speech by The Hon. David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, “Speaking Notes for Vancouver Accessibility Showcase 201 Paralympic Games”, Vancouver, BC, March 9, 2010, p. 8. (return to reference 9)
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