Moral Language Is Effective When Encouraging Employers to Act on Social Issues

Typically, when employees urge their employers to take steps to become more sustainability-focused, get more involved with corporate philanthropy or encourage corporate volunteering, they frame it as a potential business opportunity.

In other words, doing good not only helps serve a cause, but can pay off by improving brand awareness, customer loyalty and, ultimately, sales.

This is referred to as the “business case” for addressing social and environmental issues.

However, this is not necessarily the best approach, according to a new study, “The Money or the Morals? When Moral Language is More Effective for Selling Social Issues,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in February 2019.

The study asked more than 400 U.S. employees if they have ever “spoken up,” urging their employers to take a stand on social or environmental issues. About half said they had.

The study then asked how they did this, to help determine which approach was most successful. Among the ways were the following:

• Making the business case for social issues, as discussed above.

• Telling their employers it is the “morally right thing to do”.

• Persuading them that such a stand would fit in with the company’s values and mission.

Success was determined if their managers took efforts to address the social issue, including inquiring as to how much time, money and resources it would require.

The researchers uncovered the following:

• The business case for addressing social/environmental issues was the least practical approach.

• Convincing employers it was the morally right thing to do was also found to be ineffective.

• However, pointing out that it was the morally right thing to do and fit in with the company’s values and mission proved to be the most successful.

In my work helping organizations become more sustainability-focused, I often find it is a ‘down/up’ process. Employees start the process by encouraging their employers to take such steps. Now we know how they can do this most effectively.

About the Author

Stephen P. Ashkin
Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning industry. He also is CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools, which helps facilities monitor and measure their use of natural resources. He is known as the “father of green cleaning” and the professional cleaning industries leading advocate promoting sustainability. He is coauthor of The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.

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