Tom Gosselin, DNV GL
FST Soapbox

Time to Get More Value From Social Audits

By Tom Gosselin
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Tom Gosselin, DNV GL

A growing number of organizations strongly believe that social responsibility and profits are not mutually exclusive. This is especially important now for the food sector, where some companies are undergoing a major shift in workforce and supply chain management.

If global supply chains were considered complex before COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine what we’d call them now. Is there a single business operating exactly as it did before the pandemic?

All the more surprising, when survival would seem to be the top priority, pre-pandemic risk factors are not only alive and well, but they also actually outweigh coronavirus as strategic business concerns. In fact, COVID-19 didn’t even make the top five risk factors in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Risk Report.

In its analysis of the WEF report, consulting firm Ernst and Young stated the following:

“While the risk of a pandemic was noted as important in the report, and something for which we are unprepared globally, it was not identified as one of the top five risks in terms of likelihood or impact in the 2020 survey. High-impact and highly probable risks, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water crises, are just as present now as they were before the pandemic started . . .”

In our experience, some pre-pandemic business trends have actually gone from “warm and fuzzy” to red hot in spite of, or perhaps even due to, the COVID chaos. One prime example is in the case of social audits.

Social audits have been increasingly used over the past decade to evaluate corporate social responsibility and, indeed, the ethical conduct of entire supply chains. We’ve worked extensively with some of the biggest names in consumer electronics to conduct hundreds of social audits among component suppliers of all sizes. These assessments are mandatory, not by law, but by business policy. The vast scope reflects the importance—and business value—of operational factors that go beyond pure economics, whether it’s related to labor practices, health and safety, or environment.

A growing number of organizations strongly believe that social responsibility and profits are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact enablers of one another—but only if you commit to mining the full value of these programs. Think of it like data mining. Within any large body of information, you can almost always find hidden value. If you know how to look and have the proper tools. In the case of social auditing, the tools are the insights and methods employed by the auditing teams.

This is such a vital concept that we have designed its social auditing process to exceed even what the Responsible Business Alliance requires in its code of conduct. As a baseline, like every other auditor, we first look for nonconformities, which are the most serious issues requiring immediate attention. We also report “observations”, a second level of findings that speaks to things that are suboptimal but are not out of compliance, per se. That’s where it usually stops. This is the mentality of fault finding. And it has defined social auditing for a long time.

We can, and do, break that mold. Taking another critical step to ask, “what’s going right?”, provides an extra level of inquiry that probes for opportunities embedded in the fabric of the way things work. It could be an unrecognized best practice, something that people have been doing but nobody took the time, or had the awareness, to document and share. Often times, it’s something frontline workers have done as a response to an unexpected development, like a pandemic that makes you work from home.

In one service-based organization, we found that the sudden shift to working from home led to an unwelcomed rise in cases of domestic violence. We discovered this during audits of pay rates and working hours. The company was able to develop an innovative response, establishing a framework of verbal signals that workers now use to communicate stress or threat. In another instance, while auditing a large industrial company for workplace safety, we found that employees were using a shortcut to avoid a required safety measure. By probing and asking questions in a non-accusatory way, those same workers recommended a very simple workaround to the workaround—thereby restoring the safety measure without adding complexity to the task.

The key to all of this is mindset. Not just ours (the auditors), but the client organization’s as well. You must be willing to broaden the very idea of “compliance.” Sometimes, things that are out of spec are that way for a reason. Rather than lump every outlier as a flaw, you should look beneath the surface and see if there’s a good reason for it. That doesn’t automatically mean nonconformities are suddenly something else. But if you are only looking for problems, that’s all you’re going to find.

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