Let’s not mistake corporate social responsibility for corporate decency

Amanda Gervay, Senior VP, People & Capability, Asia Pacific, Mastercard, explains why organisations should foster a culture of corporate decency.
By: | August 10, 2022

When we talk about companies “doing the right thing”, we often think of big initiatives or sweeping gestures—an ambitious environmental programme here, a charity donation there.

While businesses should be doing their best to give back to society, the mere existence of these highly visible, external actions does not always tell us about who the company is at its core. Sure, maybe they are making bold moves to combat climate change, but they could also suffer from an exceedingly toxic internal culture, which may in turn affect the lives of employees and their families.

Decency is something more fundamental. Decency reveals itself both in outwardly visible actions as well as in ways that are much more subtle; it is about always trying to do the right thing by one another, even when no one is looking. As we emerge from the turmoil of the pandemic, decency will be a key differentiator for businesses.

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“As we emerge from the turmoil of the pandemic, decency will be a key differentiator for businesses.” – Amanda Gervay, Senior Vice-President, People & Capability, Asia Pacific, Mastercard


A lot has been said about the “Great Resignation”, but from what I have seen in Asia Pacific, I think of it more as a “Great Re-evaluation”—a moment in time where people are questioning just how they want to spend their working lives. More people are trying their hands at becoming entrepreneurs, or they are looking for more fluid working arrangements, or a role that will be more fulfilling. In this kind of labour market, a corporate culture of decency can be the tipping point that brings in a new hire or retains an existing employee.

However, given the somewhat intangible nature of decency, fostering it in a corporate setting requires a nuanced approach, and an appreciation of the fact that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to do it.

Encourage decency at the top, but do not make it “top-down”

It is all well and good to say that we should value decency, but it is not something that can be mandated by edict. It needs to start with a company’s leaders setting the tone, and then ensuring that this outlook is reflected at all levels of the company, whether it is in hiring practices, people management, or conflict resolution. When employees feel that they are being treated with respect and decency, they are also more likely to act accordingly. Ultimately, decency begets decency.

While these values may need an instigator, they should not be forced. Genuine cultural change can be slow and requires dialogue, leading by example, and acknowledging complexities. But once it permeates an organisation, it is much more likely to self-perpetuate and stay in place.

Reward cooperation, not competition

Perhaps one of the biggest impediments to a culture of decency is internal competition between employees. It is a natural human trait that can be compounded by promotion processes that rely heavily on KPIs. The behaviours that foster good relations between employees, such as cooperativeness, compassion, and supportiveness, are more difficult to quantify, but if you care about a workplace where decency is valued, these qualities need to be recognised and rewarded.

This is not to say that these are the only qualities that we should focus on when we are looking to promote someone, but we also need to recognise that personal ambition and the ability to cooperate are not mutually exclusive.

Speaking from my own experience at Mastercard, we find that employees at all levels of the company do best when helping each other be great. In fact, they can recognise others for it through an in-house platform where employees are able to write notes of appreciation for their colleagues’ acts of support and kindness—a demonstration of our Decency Quotation, as we call it, in action.

This culture of collaboration and collective growth allows us to be externally—rather than internally—competitive. An employee culture of “sharp elbows” tends to result in a battered and bruised workforce, rather than one that feels supported and unified in its goals.

Make decency a foundation—not just an add-on    

In a time of upheaval, growing internal and external expectations, and changing cultural norms, many corporate entities are rushing to demonstrate their awareness and elevate how they practice inclusion and care. While commendable, doing right by employees (and communities at large) should be a consistent guiding principle, rather than a sudden response to the changing tides of culture and other social forces.

An enduring ethos of decency, regardless of what’s happening in the world more broadly, promotes a sense of trust and safety internally and lends greater credence to companies’ efforts to tackle big societal issues. At its most fundamental level, a foundation of decency also means that complex issues can be discussed openly, with empathy, in an environment where everyone can have their voices heard.

Decency should not require inducements

As a company focused on building a sustainable economy where everyone can prosper, at Mastercard we have found that a greater sense of empathy among our employees allows us to have a more open-minded, human-centric approach when designing our solutions. In a safe workplace where employees’ contributions are respected, they are also more likely to embrace new ideas and innovate in ways that drive true business impact.

We all want to be treated decently. To say that this very central trait does not need to be encouraged in our offices and in our boardrooms is to say that decency is not important in the places where we spend a great deal of our time and effort. Quiet, modest decency has been overlooked for too long in the business world, but if we want to create enduring, happy teams, that must change. Do not be decent because it is good for the company—be decent because it is good for us all as humans.