Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 157, Issue 2, pp 319–337 | Cite as

“It’s Like Hating Puppies!” Employee Disengagement and Corporate Social Responsibility

  • Kelsy HejjasEmail author
  • Graham Miller
  • Caroline Scarles
Open Access
Original Paper


Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been linked with numerous organizational advantages, including recruitment, retention, productivity, and morale, which relate specifically to employees. However, despite specific benefits of CSR relating to employees and their importance as a stakeholder group, it is noteworthy that a lack of attention has been paid to the individual level of analysis with CSR primarily being studied at the organizational level. Both research and practice of CSR have largely treated the individual organization as a “black box,” failing to account for individual differences amongst employees and the resulting variations in antecedents to CSR engagement or disengagement. This is further exacerbated by the tendency in stakeholder theory to homogenize priorities within a single stakeholder group. In response, utilizing case study data drawn from three multinational tourism and hospitality organizations, combined with extensive interview data collected from CSR leaders, industry professionals, engaged, and disengaged employees, this exploratory research produces a finer-grained understanding of employees as a stakeholder group, identifying a number of opportunities and barriers for individual employee engagement in CSR interventions. This research proposes that employees are situated along a spectrum of engagement from actively engaged to actively disengaged. While there are some common drivers of engagement across the entire spectrum of employees, differences also exist depending on the degree to which employees, rather than senior management, support corporate responsibility within their organizations. Key antecedents to CSR engagement that vary depending on employees’ existing level of broader engagement include organizational culture, CSR intervention design, employee CSR perceptions, and the observed benefits of participation.


Employee engagement Disengagement Antecedents Organizational leadership Organizational culture Hospitality and tourism 



Corporate social responsibility


Organizational identification theory


Corporate fundraising


Corporate volunteering


Due to a complex mix of forces, including public demand, shareholder expectations, and the changing role of government, a growing number of organizations now practice corporate social responsibility (Rondinelli and Berry 2000). Consequently, many organizations have a corporate social responsibility agenda. However, many have yet to overcome challenges associated with embedding CSR across the organization (Glavas 2016b). Existing CSR research has focused on the correlation between leadership and responsible behavior (Waldman et al. 2006; Swanson 2008) or attempted to define socially responsible leadership (Waldman and Siegel 2008), with little attention devoted to the differences amongst employees in relation to CSR, presupposing that this stakeholder group’s expectations, views, and attitudes are the same (Rodrigo and Arenas 2008).

Understanding employee CSR engagement, both in general and from the individual level, is important for several reasons. First, within the context of corporate social responsibility, employees and organizations are mutually dependent (Roza 2016). Organizations depend on employees in the development and implementation of CSR efforts (Rodrigo and Arenas 2008) with employees increasingly expected to participate in such activities in the workplace. As noted by Collier and Esteban (2007, p. 19), despite a lack of attention at the individual level, “it is the employees—rather than the board or the consultancy firms—who carry the main burden of responsibility for implementing ethical corporate behaviour [… and] the achievement of those outcomes will largely depend on employee willingness to collaborate.” Nevertheless, many employees lack awareness of and involvement in organizational CSR initiatives (Bhattacharya et al. 2008).

Secondly, there is growing recognition that differences exist amongst employees which can contribute to minimizing pervasive disengagement amongst employees. The divergent values and interests within this stakeholder group suggest a need for greater understanding of employee CSR engagement at the individual level. Both research and practice of CSR have largely treated the individual organization as a “black box” (Howard-Grenfille 2006), failing to account for intra-organizational differences in responding to corporate responsibility issues. Yet individuals within an organization accept, interpret, and operationalize the term differently (Faber et al. 2005). While there have been strides within the literature to develop employee typologies in relation to engagement (see, for example, Hemmingway 2005; Rodrigo and Arenas 2008), the literature has not fully explored the relationship between different types of employee and drivers for engagement. A key contribution of this research thus emerges in the proposition that employees are situated along a spectrum of engagement where, in addition to common drivers of engagement, differences also arise depending on the degree to which employees support CSR within their organizations.

Thirdly, by shifting focus to look at not just engagement, but also disengagement, there is an opportunity to examine what Rupp and Mallory (2015) describe as the “dark side of CSR.” Within the extant literature, a lack of attention has been given to the antecedents of disengagement. Research has a tendency to focus on engagement rather than disengagement and thus can overlook the negative effects of corporate social responsibility in the workplace. Consequently, by exploring employee disengagement from corporate social responsibility this research contributes to understanding potential unintended negative consequences of CSR.

Furthermore, it is not necessarily clear from the literature whether engagement and disengagement are opposites (Macey and Schneider 2008). For example, Macey and Schneider (2008) suggest that the opposite of engagement could be “non-engagement,” rather than disengagement, or perhaps even burnout (Gonzalez-Roma et al. 2006; Maslach et al. 2001). This raises questions with regard to the causes and antecedents of disengagement. Very little information exists on the antecedents of disengagement, with a greater focus having been placed on the measurement and analysis of symptomatic factors, rather than causal or determining factors of disengagement (Pech and Slade 2006). The same cannot be said for research on the antecedents of engagement, a topic that while still limited (Wollard and Shuck 2011), has growing interest from a number of researchers (Pravadas and Mishra 2014). However, if these two concepts are in fact not opposites, the absence of identified drivers for engagement cannot necessarily be said to be the antecedents of disengagement. Critically, this raises questions about the ways in which both engagement and disengagement are researched. Thus far, studies have focused on investigating the concept of employee engagement, with employee disengagement remaining relatively unexplored. While the impact of disengagement is examined (e.g., financial impacts of disengagement), researchers often fail to explore the experiences of disengaged employees (Johnson 2016).

In response, this research proposes case-based stakeholder research that provides a finer-grained understanding of employees as a stakeholder group. Stakeholder theory provides a valuable framework by which to examine employee disengagement because it is underpinned by assumptions of diversity of interests between stakeholder groups and thus is useful in understanding diverse stakeholder interest. However, historically, most theorists have defined stakeholders according to a set of simple generic roles with the firm (e.g., customers, suppliers, employees, and shareholders) with few questioning the value of analyzing stakeholders as generic groups based on their roles (McVea and Freeman 2005). Nevertheless, stakeholder claims stem from a broad range of demographic, cultural, political, and social affiliations that are not always easily reconciled within the typical firm-generated economically oriented stakeholder roles.

Stakeholders are increasingly seen to challenge the borders between traditional stakeholder groups, making an individual approach to understanding employees increasingly important (Greenwood and Freeman 2011). For example, as organizations become flatter, frontline employees may become better informed than their managers; customers are frequently completing tasks formerly carried out by employees, including pumping gas and checking out from the grocery store; and many employees have become significant holders of equity within their organizations (McVea and Freeman 2005). Employees may also belong to more than one stakeholder category (Greenwood 2001). For example, an employee may also be a member of the local community, active in a union, a manager in the organization, or some combination of these (Greenwood 2008). Thus, with stakeholder relationships becoming more complex, generic classifications of stakeholders as a single homogenous group is no longer adequate, reflecting the need to recognize differences amongst employees in relation to their experience and engagement with corporate social responsibility.

The alternative approach presented in this research accommodates for heterogeneous priorities within a single stakeholder group by examining individual differences in relation to employee CSR engagement. This paper subsequently contributes to the call for individual level of analysis of CSR (Aguilera et al. 2007; Maignan and Ferrell 2001; Rodrigo and Arenas 2008), making an empirical contribution to the extant CSR literature, which has largely focused on the macro-level (Aguinis and Glavas 2012), wrongly assuming homogeneity amongst employees (Rodrigo and Arenas 2008).

Corporate Social Responsibility and the Employee

Due to the broad and diverse nature of the concept, CSR is plagued by a plethora of definitions. While the focus of this work is not to address nor untangle the myriad of definitions for corporate social responsibility, in order to contextualize both the findings and discussion, it is important to define CSR as it is used in this paper. Based on the definition of Aguinis (2011) and adopted by others (e.g., Bauman and Skitka 2012; Glavas 2016a; Rupp 2011; Rupp et al. 2011) CSR is defined as: “context-specific organizational actions and policies that take into account stakeholders’ expectations and the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental performance” (Aguinis 2011, p. 855).

This definition addresses several key elements of CSR, which we will use to position this research within the wider CSR debate. Specifically, it refers to both stakeholders and the triple bottom line (TBL) of economic, social, and environmental performance, which are key dimensions of CSR addressed by the case study organizations and, subsequently, this research. Each of the organizations engages in corporate responsibility activities that are designed to address a range of economic, social, and environmental issues (e.g., enable local involvement; invest in skills and education; reduce water use; protect biodiversity) and all three explicitly encourage stakeholders engagement in CSR (e.g., though surveys; social media; partnership with NGOs, government, and community organizations). Within this research, corporate social responsibility is also concerned with the voluntariness dimension (Dahlsrud 2008) because the organizations engage in activities that extend beyond the requirements of law, as well as because the voluntary nature of CSR is seen to affect employee CSR perceptions and subsequent CSR engagement. We therefore refer to these specific dimensions of CSR in the ensuing discussion.

Furthermore, while CSR can refer to overarching organizational strategy, it also refers to those policies and interventions designed to engage employees, rather than the organization more generally, in pro-sustainable behavior change. As such, in order to provide clarity and to set parameters for CSR, within this research CSR strategy refers to overall strategy of an organization, while CSR interventions are singular events, such as a fundraising event, which contribute to organizational strategy. The interventions discussed in this research focus specifically on corporate fundraising and corporate volunteering, as these areas were the main focus of employee responses.

Head office CSR interventions identified by employees ranged from straightforward projects, such as recycling and cycle to work schemes, to those less clearly linked to responsible behavior such as conga lines, salsa dance lessons, and company football matches. While these initiatives provide an interesting context by which to examine employee CSR engagement and disengagement, employee understanding of CSR as limited to these two often peripheral activities may reflect a lack of greater CSR awareness and engagement. Indeed, the case study organizations actively pursue a range of additional initiatives within the domain of corporate social responsibility, including reducing carbon emissions and water use, collaborating with local communities, investing in education, and developing more sustainable products. Employees’ limited understanding of their organization’s full CSR strategy therefore suggests that there is room within the literature for further exploration of internal communication of corporate responsibility and employees’ subsequent understanding and perceptions of CSR.

Employees are conceptualized as carrying out these CSR interventions, with these activities largely extra-role, rather than within-role, behaviors. It is implicit in this interpretation that employees are able to take on a more active or passive role in CSR with employees engaging in different interventions at different times. However, as we argue in the discussion, there is a need for greater opportunities for employee involvement in the design and practice of corporate social responsibility. We present an emergent perspective on CSR, arguing that a more strategic approach to CSR warrants greater ownership of the initiatives by employees, who are increasingly required not just to have an opinion about corporate responsibility but also to be active participants in its creation, adoption, and dissemination

Alongside the specific dimensions of CSR previously specified, it is also important to position this research within the wider CSR debate by specifying the extent of CSR integration. With regard to the extent of CSR, the case study organizations were selected as exemplar or “best-case” examples of CSR practice within hospitality and tourism, as evidenced by industry acknowledgment and more formalized awards and recognition. Each has published explicit statements about the organization and its employees’ responsibilities toward CSR, as well as creating policies and practices to encourage the engagement and empowerment of employees in pro-sustainable behavior. Therefore, CSR in this context is considered largely integrated into organizational strategy, rather than materializing as a series of one-off events.

As a result, it is reasonable to expect that employees within these organizations will engage widely with corporate social responsibility interventions, and thus, the organizations serve as interesting cases for examining employee engagement with CSR. Furthermore, in organizations with strong CSR policies and practice, the presence of disengaged employees within the case studies provides an opportunity to examine ineffective outcomes of CSR policy, as well as the unintended consequences of corporate responsibility.

Recognizing that corporate social responsibility incorporates a number of actions within the workplace, it is unsurprising that CSR is subsequently seen to emerge at the institutional, organizational, and individual level. However, notably the CSR literature is fragmented regarding levels of analysis, with CSR often studied from a single level of analysis at a time (Aguinis and Glavas 2012). Specifically, CSR is largely studied at the macro-level (i.e., institutional or organizational level) rather than the micro-level (i.e., individual level) (ibid). In response, by drawing on organizational level factors (e.g., firm motives, culture, and leadership) and employees at the individual level, this research contributes to the case for multilevel CSR research (Aguilera et al. 2007; Lindgreen and Swaen 2010). In order to provide clarity and structure for the findings of this research and their implications, the organization, institutional, organizational, and individual levels of analysis will now be discussed in turn, with particular attention given to how CSR at each of these levels impacts and is impacted by employees.

CSR at the Institutional Level

At the institutional level, where much of the extant research has been conducted (Aguinis and Glavas 2012; Glavas 2016b), corporate social responsibility is considered to be a “set of expectations placed on business solely based on their role as economic institutions” (Prokopowicz and Zmuda 2015, p. 216) and is therefore centered on the legitimacy of organizations within society. Research at this level has frequently turns to stakeholder theory (Freeman 1984) with a range of individuals responsible for granting or retracting the legitimacy of organizations.

Freeman defines stakeholders as “those groups who can affect or are affected by the achievement of an organization’s purpose” (1984, p. 49) and includes owners, customers, suppliers, employees, governments, environmental advocates, and the media, amongst others. CSR is argued to be a stakeholder-oriented concept due to the existence of organizations within networks of stakeholders where they are tasked with translating the potentially conflicting demands of stakeholders into CSR objectives and policies (Carroll 1991; Freeman and Moutchnik 2013; Lindgreen and Swaen 2010).

Research suggests that stakeholders take on different roles and engage in different activities while attempting to influence firms to engage in CSR (Aguinis and Glavas 2012). However, while the ways in which stakeholders might act as catalysts for CSR initiatives are diverse, not all stakeholders have been given equal attention. Specifically, most studies of CSR have focused on external stakeholders (e.g., consumers), with effects of CSR on internal stakeholders left comparatively unexplored (Post et al. 2002; Collier and Esteban 2007; Kaler 2009). This is an unfortunate oversight given that employees are almost exclusively identified as a primary stakeholder group (Greenwood 2008; Greenwood and Freeman 2011) and as they are closely integrated with the firm, employees hold a unique role amongst stakeholders (Crane and Matten 2004). These individuals both affect and can be affected by organizational activities and thus play a key role in the success or failure of their organization (Azim 2016; Freeman 1984). There is therefore a growing need to understand the ways in which employees affect and are affected by corporate social responsibility.

CSR at the Organizational Level

At the organizational level, current research has examined the ways in which CSR affects the organization as a whole (Aguinis and Glavas 2012). Different areas of the literature have had specific topics of focus; for example, within sociology and economics research, CSR is frequently explored from the firm perspective. Alternatively, marketing and consumer research has largely sought to understand public perceptions of organizational CSR. Irrespective of the subject area, much of the extant research has been undertaken in order to understand the instrumental, financial benefit of corporate responsibility (Rupp and Mallory 2015).

Thus, similarly to the institutional level, macro-level predictors of CSR engagement at the organizational level also center on the instrumental motivation or business case for CSR. Instrumental motives suggest CSR engagement is beneficial for organizations (Carroll and Shabana 2010) as it can result in increased competitiveness (Branco and Rodrigues 2006) and legitimacy (Bansal and Roth 2000). However, Vogel (2005) contends that improving the bottom line is not the only motivation for CSR, with some executives demonstrating genuine care about increased environmentally, culturally and economically sustainable business practices.

The important role of leadership in corporate social responsibility materializes in a number of ways. Due to the financial and human resources available to senior leadership, these individuals set priorities and determine strategic directive, thus critically influencing the development of corporate social responsibility within their organizations (Hemingway and Maclagan 2004). These individuals affect whether firms choose to engage in CSR, as well as the types of CSR interventions organizations subsequently pursue. The behavior of leadership is subsequently seen to set boundary conditions for employee CSR engagement with the performance and communication of leaders able to influence employee participation (Chen and Hung-Baesecke 2014).

Furthermore, the values and beliefs of leadership within the organization can influence the development of organizational culture (Schein 2010). Organizational culture establishes customs and expectations in the workplace, including those that pertain to corporate social responsibility. Since organizational culture is able to foster employee commitment to corporate values (Huczynski and Buchanan 2007), it is argued that employees who are subject to sustainability-focused cultures tend to behave in pro-sustainable ways. Notably, however, not all employees within an organization share a cohesive set of values. Though culture is often presented as a set of values and ideals homogeneously shared by an entire organization, this is a view generally rejected by social scientists and psychologists (Irrmann 2002). The literature subsequently recognizes differentiations in employee values through the discussion of organizational subcultures (e.g., Hofstede 1998; Martin 2002; Sackman 1992), suggesting that organizational subcultures may exist independently of the core organizational culture with small groups of employees sharing different sets of values, beliefs and attributes. Consequently, while there is arguably a link between corporate social responsibility and organizational culture (Zammuto and Krakower 1991), greater attention should be given to the influence of organizational subcultures on employee CSR engagement.

CSR at the Individual Level

Within the limited individual level research, studies have also identified key predictors (e.g., Bansal and Roth 2000; Ramus and Steger 2000; Rupp 2011) and mediators (e.g., Carmeli et al. 2007; Jones 2010; Sully de Luque et al. 2008) to CSR engagement. With employee CSR predictors, mediators, and outcomes arising at the individual level of analysis, these studies highlight important issues regarding CSR and emphasize why greater analysis at this level is required. In response, this research contributes understanding of the predictors that influence individuals to carry out CSR activities. The focus of this research reflects the important role of the individual actors who “actually strategize, make decisions, and execute CSR decisions” (Aguinis and Glavas 2012, p. 953).

Critically, within the individual level CSR perspective, there exists a stream of literature that views individual perceptions of CSR as more important than an organization’s objective CSR (Rupp et al. 2013). This literature focuses on underlying psychological outcomes such as organizational commitment (Mueller et al. 2012) or psychological needs such as security, sense of belonging, and meaningful existence (Bauman and Skitka 2012). Customer perceptions of CSR have also been well documented (see, for example, Alvarado-Herrera et al. 2017; Lee et al. 2013; Oberseder et al. 2013). Nevertheless, notwithstanding the contribution of these studies, the literature examining how employees assess and respond to CSR remains limited (Aguinis and Glavas 2012; Panagopoulos et al. 2016).

As outlined above, the majority of micro-level CSR research has focused on consequences rather than antecedents of employees’ perceptions. Subsequently, while there is a good understanding of the ways in which employees’ CSR perceptions affect critical employee outcomes, less is known about the factors that drive these perceptions (Rupp and Mallory 2015). Nevertheless, insights into employee CSR perceptions critically influence organization’s attempts to successfully manage those perceptions (Panagopoulos et al. 2016). Unsurprisingly, this lack of research has led to calls for increased research into the “…factors that affect individuals’ perceptions of CSR policies and practices” (Morgeson et al. 2013, p. 820). An examination of employee CSR perceptions and the variations in these perceptions based on existing levels of CSR engagement thus form a key contribution of this research.

However, in order to understand employee CSR engagement, it is important to contextualize this engagement by first considering the possible roles of employees within corporate responsibility. Employees can fill a range of roles in the development and execution of CSR; employee participation in CSR interventions frequently occurs in the form of corporate volunteer programs, in which employees offer their time and skills in service to the community (Peterson 2004a, b; Wilde 1993). Corporate fundraising and the idea of “giving at the office” has also grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, though research on employee-level giving behaviors in charitable workplace campaigns remains limited (Agypt et al. 2012). However, the role of employee participation in CSR is not confined to the mere execution of CSR activities with employees also able to suggest CSR policy (Maclagen 1999). Nevertheless, a number of predictors influence the type and extent of employee CSR engagement, such as commitment from supervisors (Muller and Kolk 2010) or CSR training (Stevens et al. 2005). Critically, this suggests that while engagement occurs at the individual level, organizational, and institutional level factors can influence employee CSR participation.

Willingness to participate in CSR is strongly linked to employee–organization identification (Kim et al. 2010). Derived from social identity theory, organizational identification theory (OID) contends that individuals develop a feeling of oneness or sense of belonging to an organization (Ashforth and Mael 1989). OID therefore has the potential capacity to generate a range of positive employee and organizational outcomes. For example, as suggested by Collier and Esteban (2007), if organizational attributes are perceived as attractive by employees, they will identify strongly with the organization and strong organizational identification may translate into cooperative and citizenship-type behaviors. However, when individual employees’ values and identity do not align with an organization’s, this can create tension amongst employees as well as between employees and the organization. This conflicts with traditional normative control within organizations where employees are expected to share common attitudes, values, and beliefs (Fleming and Sturdy 2009). This study therefore contributes to the understanding of employee engagement by highlighting the implications of antecedent variation amongst employees and by identifying alternative methods for engaging employees who may not share typical organizational attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Currently, there are two strands of employee engagement literature. The first examines employee typologies in relation to engagement (e.g., Hemmingway 2005; Rodrigo and Arenas 2008), while the second looks at those factors which contribute to or impede organizational CSR engagement (e.g., Bailey, et al. 2015; Rich et al. 2010; Saks 2006; Wollard and Shuck 2011). However, within the literature little attention is paid to overlap between these two areas, with employee typology and the differences arising between employees subsequently affecting antecedents to engagement. Consequently, a key contribution of this research is its proposition that employees are situated along a spectrum of engagement where, in addition to common drivers of engagement, differences also arise depending on the degree to which employees support CSR within their organizations.


The primary objective of this study was to determine how employees engage in CSR interventions using multinational hospitality and tourism organizations as a context. Three case study organizations were chosen based on their recognized efforts toward corporate social responsibility. Similar to other industries, the structure of the tourism and hospitality industry results in high levels of competition, low margins, limited pricing freedom, and low customer loyalty (Miller 2001). The industry is characterized by high staff turnover rates (Tesone and Ricci 2005) and the capacity of tourism to negatively impact economies, societies, and environments has exposed the industry to strong criticism (Henderson 2007), thus providing an interesting context by which to examine corporate social responsibility engagement.

To meet the study objectives, in-depth interviews were selected as the most appropriate method, enabling the researcher to gain insights into those factors which influence individual employees’ decisions to engage in corporate social responsibility, as well as to critically analyze those factors that drive some employees to be disengaged from organizational CSR. The adaptable nature of in-depth interviews assisted in the procurement of rich and meaningful data (Saunders et al. 2012) 55 in-depth interviews conducted across three multinational tourism and hospitality organizations, as well as with industry professionals (see Table 1). Interviews were conducted in the UK, both via telephone and in person.
Table 1

Profile of respondents







Engaged employees


Disengaged employees


Industry professionals




Though employees across the organization are responsible for adopting and enacting pro-sustainable behavior, the focus of this research was on head office employees, rather than frontline staff. This research is concerned with the experience of individual employees engaging in organizational CSR and, accordingly, contributes to understanding of CSR as it is driven and supported as a bottom-up, rather than top-down process. Nevertheless, in order to understand the experience of lower level employees in supporting and disseminating CSR, contextualizing factors can be drawn from examining top-down processes driven by managerial and industry CSR efforts. Interviews with managers and industry professionals contextualize employee responses and contribute to understanding of employee CSR engagement at the individual level.

While Saunders et al. (2012) suggest a minimum sample size of 5-25 for semi-structured interviews, the number is ultimately self-determined based on department size and overall employee participation and when data saturation is reached. Initially, a snowball technique was used to identify participants, an approach which is particularly useful when individuals are hard to identify (Miller 2003), such as with employees who were disengaged from CSR efforts and may therefore be less willing to self-identify. However, organizations expressed concern over “naming and shaming” due to potential negative stigmas associated with a lack of CSR engagement. Paradoxically, two of the organizations explicitly engaged in their own “naming and shaming,” posting the printing records of employees and broadly communicating employees’ poor pro-sustainable behavior throughout the organization. Nevertheless, as a result of this hesitation, self-selection was subsequently used and organizational contacts utilized personal networks to secure interviews. This resulted in a lack of control over respondents by the researcher and highlighted the difficulty of involving corporate social responsibility teams in the evaluation of CSR engagement.

Though the authors originally anticipated engaged employees to emerge as those who were currently or had previously participated in CSR and disengaged employees to constitute those who did not participate in corporate responsibility interventions at work, it became increasingly clear that engagement was fluid and often context dependent. As a result, employees were seen to engage in CSR interventions, despite being disengaged from organizational CSR (e.g., an employee that sung for charity fundraisers because he enjoyed singing, despite disliking corporate fundraising). Similarly, engaged employees participated in some but not necessarily all CSR interventions. This reflects the mobile and context dependent nature of engagement and further contributes to understanding that engagement falls across a spectrum with a number of factors influencing individual employees’ willingness to engage in corporate social responsibility. Furthermore, the lack of control identified in securing interviews resulted in one organization arranging interviews with individuals whom were identified as disengaged but were in fact keen participants of the organization’s CSR. In response, the researcher classified respondents as engaged or disengaged based on the subsequent interview, rather than how they were defined and categorized by the organization itself. Employees were identified as engaged if largely keen on organizational CSR and as disengaged if they had not or no longer participated in CSR or if opposed to CSR practice within the organization, despite being occasionally involved in corporate responsibility interventions.

To enable employees to speak freely about their views on their organization’s CSR, the researcher assured all participants of both their own anonymity and their organization within the overall study, the details of which were outlined in the information and consent form provided to employees. Furthermore, pseudonyms were provided and removing all name or place references that would allow readers to make inferences about the respondent’s identity contributed to the anonymization of interview data. It was also explained that the research was not being conducted as part of company CSR dissemination and that data would only be used for this research.

Due to the semi-structured nature of the interviews, employees were encouraged to speak widely on corporate social responsibility to ensure a greater degree of flexibility within key themes, questions, and order, which were able to flow within the context of each interview (Saunders et al. 2009). Consequently, participants were able to explore issues that they felt were important, thus providing the research with a broader view on engagement in CSR interventions. Employees were encouraged to discuss both existing CSR interventions and speculate on ideal intervention design, with the research subsequently benefiting from being both backward looking, allowing employees to evaluate existing interventions, as well as forwards looking by drawing on the thoughts and experiences of employees to determine an improved design for CSR engagement.

Notably, this research, which was initially viewed as an opportunity for organizational improvement, was increasingly met with organizational resistance. Despite initial enthusiasm to participate, challenges arose around data collection, particularly with access to disengaged employees. As mentioned, snowballing techniques were challenged by concerns of “naming and shaming” employees who disengaged from organizational CSR. Data collection subsequently proceeded by having gatekeepers at both organizations email employees requesting participation. However, a limited number of employees were identified. In response, an additional case study organization was included in order to allow the researcher to fully explore the research question and achieve data saturation. While the same definition of engagement was applied, to avoid previous challenges in identifying disengaged employees, within the third organization respondents were identified by asking for employees to be interviewed if they participated in or did not participate in a single project, rather than in CSR more generally.

The inclusion of a third case study was augmented by the addition of a series of six interviews with a range of industry professionals. These individuals, who were selected from a range of non-profits as well as tourism and hospitality organizations, were chosen based on their experience with corporate social responsibility and in facilitating pro-sustainable behavior change within the industry. The insights of these professionals served to provide greater context for the adoption of responsible behavior within the industry as well as to discuss more openly those challenges faced by organizations when addressing issues of corporate social responsibility and disengagement.

All 55 interviews were transcribed verbatim, and all pages of transcripts were coded. The coding process was initially undertaken by hand, in order to develop familiarity with the data. However, due to the quantity of data acquired, subsequent analysis was conducted in NVivo. NVivo was used for the consolidation and coordination of data, with thematic analysis then adopted to identify key groupings and codes. The detailed thematic analysis of the interview data involved reading, creating categories, identifying and revising themes, and isolating emerging patterns (Boyatzis 1998; Miles and Huberman 1994). Therefore, within NVivo full transcripts were examined line by line to identify information pertinent to the research question. As suggested by Leech and Onwuegbuzie (2007, p. 565), “constant comparison can be undertaken deductively (e.g., codes are identified prior to analysis and then looked for in the data), inductively (e.g., codes emerge from the data), or abductively (i.e., codes emerge iteratively).” This research adopted an inductive method, drawing commonalities from the data. To do so, data were organized into categories based on themes and the relationship between concepts subsequently explored. Identifying commonalities or abnormalities arising during data transcription and analysis subsequently contributed to the development of themes. Comparisons and contradictions were explored between individual employees as well as between interview groups, such as between engaged and disengaged employees. Due to the quantity of data examined, themes were frequently evaluated to see if there were themes and subthemes that could be combined.

After analyzing the interview data and re-engaging with the literature, discrepancies in the antecedents to engagement and disengagement were identified. It is also worth noting that while the results of this investigation suggest a number of opportunities and barriers to CSR, it also identifies issues of engagement at the organizational level due to the difficulties faced in gaining access to the research site. Organizations understandably feel cautious of external researchers, particularly if asking questions that are considered sensitive or awkward. As one respondent suggested, it can be difficult for organizations to willingly bring to attention those employees who do not share organizational values. It is increasingly clear that the human aspect of corporate social responsibility implementation extends well beyond employee participation, touching upon broader issues of corporate disengagement, organizational resistance, and change management. The literature would benefit from further research into the challenges associated with studying CSR, particularly in relation to those factors which impact corporate social responsibility research more generally including organizational politics, image, and reputation; however, a full discussion of these issues lies outside the scope of this paper.


As identified, the aim of this paper is to explore, from an individual employee perspective, issues related to employee engagement with organizational CSR and those factors which might drive both engagement and disengagement from corporate responsibility. Key antecedents to engagement and disengagement are identified, specifically highlighting discrepancies amongst different employees with employees across the spectrum of engagement facing unique opportunities and barriers to CSR engagement. In doing so, this research presents an increasingly fine-grained understanding of employees as a stakeholder group. Engagement is often discussed without making distinctions between various employees, presupposing that employee outlooks and opinions are the same; however, with employee engagement existing across a spectrum, the traditional one-size fits all approach to managing employees must be replaced by more individualized employee approaches (Aggarwal et al. 2007). As is identified by this research, key antecedents to CSR engagement vary depending on an employee’s existing level of broader engagement. This research focuses on the significant differences found between engaged and disengaged employees as a general whole; however, an examination of the subsequent differences within these two groups, while outside the scope of this paper, presents a valuable area for further research.

Furthermore, although the findings presented are concerned with the experience of individual employees, it must be recognized that these are inherently embedded within corporate contextual factors and as such, to ensure the complexities of employee engagement are addressed comprehensively, and it is not possible to extrapolate factors of employee engagement in isolation from corporate contextual factors, namely leadership and culture. Consequently, antecedents to employee CSR engagement and disengagement are identified at the organizational, activity, and individual level. Key antecedents to employee CSR engagement and disengagement arising at each of these levels shall now be addressed in turn.

The Role of Organizational Culture

A key driver of employee CSR engagement arises at the organizational level with employers increasingly using organizational culture as a way of motivating employees. In relation to corporate responsibility, strong CSR-focused cultures have been shown to enhance employee adoption of pro-sustainable behavior (Galpin et al. 2015). Creating and sustaining pro-sustainable organizations arguably requires hiring employees who are willing to engage in CSR activities (Renwick et al. 2012), which results in increasingly values focused criteria required of new hires. Such is the case within the exemplar organizations in this study. As suggested by Nick, who is both actively engaged in organizational CSR and involved in employee recruitment, “it’s one of those things that certainly features in recruitment because we are a very values driven organization and for me, it’s really, really important that we have people come on board who are in line with those values.”

It is implicit in this belief that organizations are able to present a unified CSR-focused organizational culture. However, while organizations may strive to create a cohesive and shared set of values by hiring those employees who have a strong culture and value fit (Galpin et al. 2015), through the examination of disengaged employees, research findings suggest that not all employees belong to the same unified organizational culture. This brings to light the importance of organizational subcultures, which may have rival images and competing systems of meaning (Riley 1983). While organizational subcultures have been discussed more broadly within the management literature, few pieces of empirical research link cultural fragmentation and CSR (Linnenluecke et al. 2007). Two notable exceptions, however, include Howard-Grenfille (2006) and Harris and Crane (2002), whom demonstrate that the adoption of a “sustainable” culture is impeded by organizational subcultures, which inhibit the dissemination of consistent and shared corporate responsibility values and beliefs. Consequently, with corporate social responsibility identified as a driver of employee engagement, subcultures within an organization have key implications for the adoption and dissemination of CSR policy and practice. It therefore becomes increasingly important to understand and identify subcultures as these cultures influence the ways in which employees understand and enact corporate social responsibility.

Furthermore, engaged employees who share organizational values appear to have strong opinions about those who do not. For example, Madison, an engaged employee, claims “being responsible, from my point of view, is one of our key principles so I think if you’re not a little bit responsible and care a little bit about it, then you are probably working for the wrong company.” She was not the only engaged employee to question where disengaged employees fit within sustainable companies and cultures. As suggested by Callum, an engaged employee within the human resources team of one organization, “we hire people who share our values and people who stay with [the company] share those values because I think those that don’t end up figuring out this isn’t the right place for them.” This is consistent with findings from the literature where authors such as Rothbard (2015) argue, “when people don’t fit the organization, they don’t feel comfortable. They often don’t get selected, and if they do, they don’t enjoy their experience and they leave.” Bruhn (2008) contends that the tension of value dissonance motivates individuals to either change their values and opinions or leave the institution in an effort to avoid dissonance.

While the responses of engaged employees re-emphasized the assertion of organizational identification theory that employees who identify with an organization subsequently promote the perceived interests of that organization, it is evident from this research that employees can be found within organizations with which they do not share values and that may be a poor cultural fit. Indeed, many employees find that they have opinions that do not fit institutional norms or fit with the opinions of those who monitor and enforce them (Bruhn 2008). As noted by Rhys, a disengaged employee, “it’s not unusual to be disengaged.” Thus, though as a stakeholder group, employees are defined based on a shared interest in the organization and have subsequently been treated as a single homogenous entity, this does not necessitate additional shared interests nor shared values. Consequently, while quitting is a likely outcome for many employees who face value dissonance within their organizations, this research identifies that when employees do not share organizational CSR values, instead of quitting they may develop alternative coping mechanisms. For example, employees identified taking time off work to avoid uncomfortable situations, retaliating such as by printing thousands of sheets of paper, or being driven to engage by other values, such as teambuilding and socialization, rather than CSR. This paper therefore suggests adopting a perspective of organizational cultures that allows for competing values and meaning attributed to CSR, understanding that employees may engage in some contexts and disengage in others.

While the literature has focused on achieving value congruence in order to develop “strong” organizational cultures, emerging research questions this lack of diversity and the desirability of having only employees who share a cohesive set of values. For example, within the extant literature, diversity is shown by some researchers to increase productivity, creativity, and quality (Earley and Mosakowski 2000; Ely and Thomas 2001; Polzer et al. 2002; van Knippenberg and Schippers 2007). Further, Kruse (2012) questions if it is even a feasible strategy to hire only those employees who share organizational values. Indeed, as Bao et al. (2012) suggest, it may not be fully possible to understand employee values during the screening process, hindering the validity of staffing as a means of achieving value congruence. In addition, given that key aspects of CSR center on diversity and inclusion, excluding employees with different values runs contrary to the concept’s ideals. Indeed, CSR is presented as a tool for diversity management (Vermaut and Zanoni 2014) and yet, some employees are left feeling isolated from organizational culture. Consequently, in their effort to achieve employee–company fit and value cohesion, some organizations face inadvertent hypocrisy. As a result, in CSR-focused cultures where pro-sustainable behavior is viewed as the norm, there are those employees who may continue to struggle with corporate social responsibility. With reactions ranging from disengagement, retaliation, and isolation it becomes clear that driving CSR through CSR-focused cultures that do not allow for individuality may inadvertently result in negative outcomes.

In the context of CSR engagement and disengagement, it therefore becomes important to give consideration to subcultures that exist within an organization and the views, expectations, and needs individuals within these subcultures have in regard to corporate responsibility. Lok et al. (2011) posit that because organizational culture is largely abstract and distant from employees’ engagement with day-to-day realities of their organizational lives, aspects of the work context that are closer to these realities, such as immediate leadership, work groups, and subcultures will have a more marked effect on employee outcomes. This is consistent with these research findings through which middle management and group identity, rather than organizational identity, are particularly influential of employee CSR engagement.

Intervention Design

It is increasingly clear that employees exist across a spectrum of engagement. However, little is understood about the project-specific elements that influence employees’ decisions to engage in corporate responsibility. While projects within the case study organizations varied from cycle to work schemes to charity days and recycling initiatives, there are features of CSR intervention design which are consistent and that findings indicate directly influence employee CSR engagement. In particular, employees highlighted the importance of intervention type, interest, and relevance of interventions, as well as autonomy and choice. As such, by addressing key aspects of intervention design, this section identifies critical drivers for engagement and disengagement arising at the project level.

Key discrepancies arise between engaged and disengaged employees in relation to preferred type of CSR initiative. Interestingly, within the literature little attention is given to the differences in employee engagement based on the type of CSR initiative. Both corporate fundraising (CF) and corporate volunteering (CV) have been addressed individually, with researchers examining employee motivations and volunteering (e.g., Gary et al. 2010; Muthuri et al. 2009; Pajo and Lee 2011; Peterson 2004b) and mechanisms that drive charitable giving (e.g., Bekkers and Wiepking 2011; Bennett 2003). However, employee engagement is affected by the type of initiative and thus examining differences in engagement for corporate volunteering and corporate fundraising provides critical insight into antecedents to both CSR engagement and disengagement and subsequently forms a key contribution of this research. Further, understanding antecedents to employee CSR engagement that arise at the project level, and thus are subject to management influence, can influence the effectiveness of stakeholder engagement in relation to corporate social responsibility.

In general, employees viewed corporate volunteering very positively. Interviews revealed that employees were driven to engage in CV for two main reasons: volunteering schemes which were conducted out of the office were considered indicative of organizational support for CSR and employees perceived these initiatives as offering a range of benefits, including opportunities for team building, socialization, and time-out of the office. It is possible that it is due to benefits beyond pure altruism that CV appears to hold such high appeal to disengaged employees. Employee volunteering is shown to be conducive of generating social capital through networking and generating trust (Muthuri et al. 2006), key drivers that emerged in this research as influencing the likelihood of disengaged employees to participate in CSR.

Employees also repeatedly highlighted that you did not lose wages if you participated in volunteer days. Employees perceived the benefits here as being twofold. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, employees benefited in that they did not lose wages by choosing to participate. However, more interestingly, employees also identified an organization’s willingness to pay employee wages while working on CSR outside of the office as being indicative of true organization support for corporate responsibility.

Far less positive associations were given to corporate fundraising. Indeed, respondents suggested that employees who might have otherwise participated in CSR were disengaged due to the financial element of certain initiatives. Employees described fundraising as being invasive and pushy, and felt negatively about organizational and peer pressure to participate. For example, Rhys, who is disengaged from organizational CSR, contends, “[pressure’s] the bit that warns me off because I just think well, no, I’d rather do it voluntarily and feel that I’m participating because I want to.” This is consistent with self-determination theory, for which autonomy forms a key need. While employees can comply with CSR due to external regulation such as pressure, employees are more likely to engage in organizational CSR when they have more CSR-related relative autonomy and are thus able to participate in CSR due to personal interest. Certain forms of CSR interventions may consequently cause employees to view their behavior as not being self-determined and may subsequently disengaged from corporate social responsibility. It is therefore useful to in consider employees’ CSR-related relative autonomy in different contexts and within different interventions.

Critically, pressure is one example that highlights that within the context of CSR, the concepts of engagement and disengagement may not in fact be opposites. A lack of antecedents to engagement is not necessarily the cause of disengagement, with at least some unique factors driving employee disengagement. As illustrated above, while pressure can drive continued engagement for some employees, for those who are less engaged in corporate social responsibility, pressure is seen to drive disengagement. This research therefore contributes to emerging evidence within the literature that suggests disengagement is not the counterpart of engagement (Gonzalez-Roma et al. 2006; Macey and Schneider 2008; Maslach et al. 2001). Presupposing that employee outlooks and opinions on CSR are homogenous has caused a lack of distinction to be made between drivers to engagement and to disengagement. Having studied individual differences in CSR engagement, this research subsequently suggests that the engagement and disengagement are not opposites, identifying unique antecedents such as pressure, which can drive both engagement and disengagement depending on where an employee sits on the spectrum of engagement.

Furthermore, in addition to the financial burden of corporate fundraising, employees identified far fewer benefits to participation. Indeed, beyond “feeling good” or “doing good,” employees identified no other benefits to corporate fundraising. This has important implications for organizational strategy to engage employees across the spectrum of engagement, with disengaged employees appearing to be more invested in the CSR process, rather than the outcome, as discussed below.

While engaged employees appear to be invested in the outcome of projects, findings indicate that disengaged employees are more invested in the process. For example, while identified by both engaged and disengaged employees, disengaged employees in particular felt very strongly that organizational initiatives needed to align with personal interests. The belief that employees should have an interest in projects is perhaps unsurprising given that while engaged employees may participate simply because they believe “it’s the right thing to do,” disengaged employees who do not share this conviction may subsequently be more reliant on congruence between activities and personal interests. This presents organizations with an alternative means to engage those employees who may not be driven by organizational identification, with interest in type of intervention, rather than shared organizational values and norms, acting as an antecedent to CSR engagement.

Research from the case study organizations suggests that even if opposed to an organization’s charity or fundraising more generally, disengaged employees may participate if interested in the initiative. For example, as illustrated by one disengaged employee, Ethan, a dislike of the charity but interest in the initiatives was enough to drive engagement:

I said before that I am not going to raise any more money for this charity […] but I really enjoy being in the choir, and then they did a charity single this year, and it is obviously for that charity as well, so I was like well I am doing it more for the singing side of things.

Similarly, an interest in cycling also motivated the employee’s involvement in a fundraising bike ride, despite disliking the charity for which the organization was fundraising. Such was the importance of personal interest in projects that employees who were actively engaged in pro-sustainable behavior outside of work, refused to engage in CSR in the office if they felt no personal connection and interest in interventions. For example, Greg, a disengaged employee who volunteers with the disabled, explains how he chooses to participate in projects outside of work for which he feels more passionately, rather than engaging with CSR at work.

Employee interest in CSR interventions is inherently linked with autonomy and choice. As Emma, who is actively engaged in corporate responsibility, suggests, engagement is driven by “having the flexibility to do more—I think flexibility is the key, so the more kind of flexibility you have to do the activity when you want to do it, or how you want to do it is key.” Indeed, within the literature, the provision of choice is repeatedly highlighted as a common and effective vehicle through which managers can empower employees (Chua and Iyengar 2006). In particular, when it comes to extra-role behavior, autonomy in the workplace may provide employees with the necessary discretion and latitude to perform those tasks that fall outside of formal job requirements (Bell and Menguc 2002).

With lack of autonomy driving disengagement, stakeholder input becomes critical to CSR success, at least in relation to those interventions targeted at employees. This supports the emergent perspective of CSR put forward by this research that suggests that a more strategic approach to CSR warrants greater ownership of initiatives by employees. Indeed, autonomy is an important issue in stakeholder management. As Freeman (1994, p. 9) suggests, “[…] autonomy is captured by the realization that each stakeholder must be free to enter agreements that create value for themselves.” In the context of CSR engagement and stakeholder theory, if employees are to create value for themselves within organizational CSR, the role of interest and autonomy must be at the forefront of CSR policy and design. There is therefore arguably greater scope for participative management with corporate social responsibility. CSR is inherently participative in nature (Kumar and Tiwari 2011) and thus, participative management, also known as participative decision-making or employee involvement, which is linked to stakeholder engagement (Newton and Elliott 2016), can play an important role in driving employee CSR engagement.

Actively involving employees in the development of CSR interventions can increase the congruence between interventions and employee interests. There is therefore arguably greater scope for organizations to engage employees in CSR dialogue. In doing so, firms are better able to determine which social and environmental issues matter most to employees, as well as better understand diversity within the employee stakeholder group. Nevertheless, within the case study organizations strategies designed to engage employees in the design and development of CSR were limited to voluntary roles on green teams or as CSR champions, through the voting or submission of ideas, and for some, the autonomy within teams to select which charities to donate time or money to. However, many of these strategies for employee involvement, while utilized by highly engaged employees at the far end of the spectrum, did not facilitate engagement with employees from the other end of the spectrum. As a result, disengaged employee remains excluded from organizational dialogue surrounding corporate social responsibility. There is therefore arguably greater opportunity for participative management with corporate social responsibility.

Employee Perceptions of Organizational CSR

At the individual level, engagement is driven by employee perceptions of organizational CSR and the observed benefits of participation. Organizational CSR efforts influence employee attitudes and behaviors only to the extent that employees perceive and evaluate them (Barnett 2007; Bhattacharya and Sen 2004) with employees’ CSR perceptions accordingly forming a central variable mediating the influence of CSR actions on employees and of employees on CSR (Rupp et al. 2006). Nevertheless, the majority of micro-level CSR research has focused on consequences rather than antecedents of employee perceptions.

As a result, while there is a good understanding of the ways in which employees’ CSR perceptions affect critical employee outcomes (e.g., job performance, commitment) less is known about the consequences of employee CSR perceptions as they relate to employee CSR engagement. This research therefore provides additional insights to enhance both researcher and practitioner understanding of the impact corporate responsibility strategies and managerial practices may have on employees.

The ways in which organizational CSR strategies are both led and communicated influence employee interpretations of the motives attributed to corporate social responsibility. In particular, findings indicate that employee CSR perceptions, particularly those of disengaged employees, are influenced by whether or not organizational motives appear to be symbolic or substantive. Symbolic, profit-driven, or self-interested attributions relate to motives that are about helping the firm increase its own welfare, whereas substantive, selfless, or benevolent attributions relate to motives that have the ultimate goal of genuinely doing good (Du et al. 2007; Donia et al. 2016).

However, while employees express a desire for CSR to be driven by ethical rather than economic considerations, for many organizations it is the strategic benefits of CSR that play a central role in its adoption. For example, one manager, Taylor, illustrates an argument for CSR, which centers on cost savings:

If we can reduce costs by keeping people who are passionate about [the company] in our business, that’s a massive commercial success for us. If we can reduce energy costs because we just operate more efficiently, that saves tons of money […] So it’s all about cost saving – there’s a very, very strong commercial case for everything we do and in turn, that helps our reputation and our image. It’s a win-win.

Employees and management can subsequently hold conflicting viewpoints regarding CSR motives. This discrepancy may result in situations where, according to Marcus, a disengaged employee, “[…] it feels a bit laborious that the company is doing this for a charity and it feels like more of a PR exercise than a genuinely emotive experience.” Consequently, while organizational motives for CSR are often driven to some extent by economic considerations, the lack of perceived ethical considerations can cause negative CSR perceptions, reiterating the need for stakeholder engagement in the development of CSR interventions. In addition, the multiplicity of interests and values surrounding CSR further emphasizes diversity amongst employees as a stakeholder group.
In addition to stakeholder engagement, the research findings suggest that one possible way to minimize negative perceptions of CSR as being driven by economic rather than ethical considerations is through CSR leadership. Leadership participation and advocacy for CSR are shown to address issues of genuineness and the critique of CSR as mere window dressing. For example, Megan, who generally disengages from CSR at work, suggests that:

[…] if you see a leader, a person on one of the leadership teams, taking part in this activity and you see that they’re genuine about it and is not doing it just because he’s forced to do it, you actually understand how that person thinks, that it’s real and it’s important. […] If you see a person that when he tells you about it, really believes in what he says, then you will believe it as well, because if you realize that that person is just reading a script because the PA handed it over, then you’ll say, ‘Okay, why should I do it?’

This is consistent with previous studies that have found that a leader’s advocacy effects employee participation, awareness, and attitude toward CSR initiatives (e.g., Egri and Herman 2000; Groves and La Rocca 2011). Whether engaged or disengaged, employees consistently identified a need for the active participation of leadership in corporate responsibility. Indeed, when asked if the participation and involvement of senior management in CSR initiatives helped to facilitate employee engagement, Logan, a long term and very engaged employee, responded with an enthusiastic “hell of a yes! Yes, definitely!”.
As Brown et al. (2005) contend, senior leaders can demonstrate how to behave in an ethically acceptable way and due to their visibility within organizations, are ideally placed to lead by example when it comes to pro-sustainable behavior change. This is consistent with observations from engaged employees, including Emma, who argues:

Seeing your Senior Executives and your Line Managers set a good example and getting involved is good for the business and is a good motivator [since it’s] people who you respect and look up to. If they’re leading the way, I think that makes a difference in an organization.

Employees can therefore interpret the visible involvement of top management as CSR and participation in CSR being valued within their organization. Thus, when leaders signal their support and engagement with corporate social responsibility, employee engagement may be maintained or enhanced. Indeed, as suggested by one employee, some employees were engaged in corporate responsibility simply because the organization’s director has made it clear that he wants to see people involved. Conversely, it is unsurprising that some employees negatively interpreted a lack of visible support. A lack of senior management participation caused some employees to question the values of leadership and the reasons why organization ask them to engage in corporate social responsibility. Indeed, throughout all three case studies, employees repeatedly suggested that if leaders are not actively involved in CSR efforts, employees who are asked to engage perceive these activities as being peripheral rather than core to the values of the organization. As Deborah, who volunteers as a CSR champion within her organization, explains:

I think the fact that they’re joining in as well helps because you’re not going, ‘it’s them not at the top so they haven’t got to bother’. You know, they’re in there as well. They’re getting covered in paint along with the rest of us. It makes it quite a fun day.

The importance of organization wide support and engagement is further emphasized by disengaged employee, Elijah, who suggests that without the involvement of all levels of management, CSR becomes “[…] a, ‘do as we say and not as we do’, mentality, and that’s just wrong.” Consequently, by matching words with deeds, leaders showcase their CSR actions as role models, proving their belief in the value of such actions and advocating them to employees (Chen and Hung-Baesecke 2014).

Observed Benefits of CSR Participation

In addition to perceptions of CSR as substantive rather than symbolic, employees were driven to engage based on the observed benefits of participation. Employees reported benefits of engagement in relation to the development of both professional skills and social capital. In particular, engaged employees identified benefiting from the development of professional skills, whereas disengaged employees were more focused on social capital, specifically in terms of team building. Because it contributed to valuable team building and networking opportunities, social capital, which refers to connections amongst individuals (Putnam 2000), was identified as a key benefit and driver for employee engagement in corporate social responsibility. As suggested by Nicole, who is a CSR champion within her organization, “it kind of breaks down a little bit of a barrier. You see [your co-workers and manager] in different ways and then when you’re back in the office you have different conversations with them.” Despite being disengaged from organizational CSR, one employee, Mia, reflects on CSR as being a valuable opportunity for socialization at work: “you’ve got that social aspect as well, which can make it quite fun.”

Grace, another CSR champion, has noted that within her team, “it’s all about team spirit. It’s all about camaraderie and doing something together to make a difference.” Indeed, for some departments, team building was the sole driver for employee involvement. Other CSR champions also bring up this insight and concur with it. Jason, for example, suggests that team building offers a way to engage those employees who would otherwise be disinterested in corporate responsibility: “I think it’s the [projects] where you do things as a team, that’s where even people who might not normally care actually enjoy doing something like that and you know, working with people in the team.” This is perhaps unsurprising, given that team building has been repeatedly linked to workplace fun (Bolton and Houlihan 2009; Tews et al. 2013) and is also shown to improve supervisor and co-worker relations (Rothman and Coen 2013). However, one disengaged employee suggests that while CSR offers valuable opportunities for socialization and team building, these benefits only arise if “you’re willing to cough up and buy stuff” (Lucas), which suggests that financial barriers to CSR engagement may outweigh the positive effects of leadership.

Nevertheless, respondents still reported that the social capital gained from CSR engagement provided employees with the chance to build more personal connections in the workplace, creating a sense of connectedness. When asked about the benefits of participating, one disengaged employee, Marcus, emphasized the sense of inclusion that comes from CSR socialization, suggesting:

It’s nice to feel part of something. I love … it’s a little thing, but when we do the sports day, I love that. Because it must be the only time we all get together apart from the Christmas party.

Critically, CSR initiatives that facilitate co-worker connectedness may help to address issues of disconnect for disengaged employees who do not otherwise identify with their organization. Organizational identification and the subsequent sharing of organizational values and beliefs (Pratt 1998) are linked to willingness to participate in CSR (Kim et al. 2010). However, while employees often act consistently with their organization’s identity (Corbett et al. 2015), when individual employees’ identities do not align with the organization’s identity this can create tension amongst employees as well as between employees and the organization. These research findings subsequently suggest that while employees may lack connectedness to the organization, connectedness to colleagues is identified as a driver for employee engagement (Hammond 2011; Zigarmi et al. 2009), which in turn may translate into cooperative and citizenship-type behaviors, such as employee CSR engagement.


This research endeavored to address employee CSR engagement from the individual level. In doing so, it provides guidance for practitioners on how to facilitate employee CSR engagement within their organizations, as well as filling gaps in the existing literature on employee engagement and corporate social responsibility. Key implications for theory, practice, and future research, as well as the potential limitations of this research, are subsequently reviewed below.

Knowledge Contributions

This research suggests that employees exist along a spectrum, identifying a range of personal, project, and organizational level factors that influence employee CSR engagement. Employees are driven to engage and disengage in unique ways, depending on where they sit along the spectrum of engagement. Therefore, in acknowledging that employees accept, interpret and operationalize corporate responsibility differently, this study also accounts for individual differences amongst employees.

Research findings subsequently contribute a finer-grained conceptualization of employees as a stakeholder group. Where a coarse-grained analysis, which is typical within the literature, examines generic activities and conditions influencing stakeholder behavior, a fine-grained approach enables the identification of unique opportunities and barriers to employee CSR engagement. Consequently, though there is an implicit assumption within the literature that stakeholder groups are homogenous, a fine-grained approach suggests instead that employees are driven to engage and disengage in unique ways, depending on their current state of engagement. Therefore, in addition to diverse needs and expectations in relation to CSR arising between stakeholder groups, it is evident that diversity also occurs within a single stakeholder group.

Diversity within stakeholder groups exacerbates the need for employee participation in corporate social responsibility design and development. However, employee involvement remains a critical element missing from the stakeholder approach to CSR. Despite stakeholder theory being specifically concerned with “who has input in decision-making” (Phillips 2003, p. 487) and employees virtually indisputably recognized as a key stakeholder (Greenwood 2008; Greenwood and Freeman 2011), employees remain largely absent from the development and implementation of CSR, despite being expected to active participants of final CSR policy and practice. As a result, research findings expand current theoretical positions on the involvement of stakeholders in organizational decision-making concerning corporate social responsibility. Communication with stakeholders thus forms an essential element in the design, implementation, and success of CSR interventions.

Research findings also contribute to the conceptualization of engagement and disengagement as two distinct constructs. While some conceptualize engagement to be the opposite of disengagement (i.e., the absence of disengagement), we suggest instead that engagement and disengagement are distinct states. We argue that both engagement and disengagement are independent, rather than opposites, with the absence of drivers for engagement (e.g., pressure) not necessarily resulting in disengagement. Indeed, as demonstrated by the research findings, it is possible for an employee to be both engaged and disengaged simultaneously. For example, despite being disengaged from organizational CSR, an employee may still engage in CSR interventions due to personal interest (e.g., an employee that sings for charity fundraisers because he enjoys singing, despite disliking corporate fundraising). Thus, the state of engagement is shown to be both fluid and context dependent.

Practical Implications

Along the spectrum of engagement, what may act as a driver for engagement for some employees may drive disengagement for others. Therefore, recognizing that employees are situated along a spectrum of engagement with differences arising amongst employee CSR engagement at a range of levels, managers can design increasingly effective CSR policies and programs for different employees. By determining where an employee sits along the spectrum, organizations are better equipped to identify and address individual opportunities and barriers to CSR engagement.

Engagement is also driven by employee perceptions of CSR, as well as the observed benefits of participation. Specifically, employee CSR perceptions were influenced by whether organizational motives appeared to be extrinsic or intrinsic. For some employees, perceived extrinsic motivations formed an antecedent to disengagement, conflicting with managerial priorities as organizational motivation for pro-sustainable behavior often driven, at least in part, by economic considerations. CSR leadership, particularly leader participation and advocacy, is subsequently identified as a valuable managerial tool for combating employee cynicism.

In addition to perceptions of CSR as substantive rather than symbolic, employees were driven to engage based on the observed benefits of participation. Specifically, engaged employees focused more heavily on professional skill development, whereas disengaged employees were driven to participate by the social capital gained through team building and networking. Notably, some less engaged employees were driven to participate in corporate responsibility exclusively due to team building opportunities. Recognizing diversity in employee needs, organizations are subsequently better equipped to identify potential challenges, communicate more clearly, and thus, employ effective operational strategies.

Perceived benefits of participation are, of course, reliant on the type of intervention designed by the organization. Key elements of intervention design that are identified as driving engagement included: intervention type, interest and relevance of interventions, autonomy, and choice. More broadly, distinctions were drawn between employee engagement interventions in corporate fundraising and corporate volunteering. Critically, corporate fundraising was identified as an antecedent to disengagement, where as corporate volunteering was more conducive of engagement. Therefore, findings suggest that when organizations signal the value of CSR through resource investment, they are able to combat employee cynicism and the common critique of CSR as “window dressing.”

While all employees desired initiatives in which they were interested, disengaged employees in particular felt very strongly that organizational initiatives needed to align with personal interests. The belief that employees should have an interest in projects is perhaps unsurprising given that while engaged employees may participate simply because they believe “it’s the right thing to do,” disengaged employees who do not share this conviction may subsequently be more reliant on congruence between activities and personal interests. Indeed, for some disengaged employees, an interest in the initiatives was enough to drive participation even if opposed to the charity. Furthermore, employees who engaged in responsible behavior outside of work were driven to disengage in the workplace if uninterested in the initiatives offered.

Consequently, by giving employees the autonomy to position themselves and the tools necessary to mobilize themselves along the spectrum of engagement, organizations are able to remove barriers to participation and facilitate greater engagement. Findings suggest that whereas board and senior managers emphasize the business case for CSR, elsewhere in the organization employees prioritize CSR interventions with which they have a personal connection in order to gain social capital, break up the monotony of the working day, and achieve altruistic outcomes. Therefore, similarly to Rupp et al. (2011), this research argues for the usefulness of considering the CSR-related relative autonomy of organizational contexts and the extent to which individuals are provided autonomy in participating in, advocating for, and implementing CSR-related initiatives.

Limitations and Future Research

A key limitation of this research and indeed CSR research in general is caused by the fragmented and inconsistent definition of CSR. Specifically, in the context of in-depth interviews, employees interpret and understand CSR to be different things. Indeed, employees within the case study organizations understood CSR to be specific elements of the organizations’ overarching corporate responsibility strategy, rather than referring to the strategy as a whole. Within this limited understanding of CSR, it was noted during interviews that employees ranged from those who were enthusiastic supporters of CSR to others who had little or no interest in CSR interventions. Nevertheless, employee understanding of CSR as being limited to corporate fundraising and corporate volunteering, which are largely peripheral activities, raises several questions surrounding CSR communication and employee understanding and engagement with corporate responsibility, and thus highlights a key area for further research.

Furthermore, while this research focused the significant differences found between engaged and disengaged employees as a general whole, an examination of the subsequent differences within these two groups presents a valuable area for further research. Because demographic variables have been shown to possess significant relationships with CSR, it would be meaningful to further identify individual differences (e.g., age, tenure, job role) in relation to employee CSR engagement and disengagement. In addition, continued research at the individual level would contribute to further understanding employee CSR disengagement and why CSR may under certain conditions influence some employees positively and others negatively.

Finally, the focus of this research was on head office employees, rather than frontline staff. While insights from corporate head offices contribute to understanding of employee CSR engagement, because drivers and barriers to CSR engagement were often found to be context dependent, it is important to understand how different work settings may affect employee CSR engagement and disengagement. Future research might therefore focus on various organizational contexts, including organizational subsidiaries, as well as various industry contexts, including those outside of tourism and hospitality.


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Hospitality and Tourism ManagementUniversity of SurreyGuildford, SurreyUK
  2. 2.Faculty of Arts and Social SciencesUniversity of SurreyGuildford, SurreyUK

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