The way in which businesses report their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities may hardly seem likely to cause "tense discussions" and "heated arguments," but a paper by Haiying (Christy) Cui, a junior at Washington and Lee University, points to increasing concerns over how the reporting is done.
Cui spent the summer as a R.E. Lee Scholar researching the subject of CSR reporting. The tense discussions have been among academics and other groups of stakeholders about what constitutes a good CSR report, what the process should be and how in depth a firm's disclosure should be.
Cui is from China and is a double major in economics and music. She was guided in her research by Robert (Rob) Straughan, associate dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics at W&L and professor of business administration, and Elizabeth Oliver, the Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Accounting.
"In looking at all these different CSR reports, it is clear that there are enormous variations from firm to firm, both in the way they go about reporting CSR, the things that they measure and the things that they don't measure," said Straughan.
A number of organizations, including the United Nations and some more business-directed organizations, are trying to develop standards for CSR reporting. Straughan said that he expects that over the next 10 to 15 years there will be a convergence around a smaller subset of CSR reporting standards, although it is not clear at this point which ones will be the most widely adopted.
Cui conducted an overview of the reporting standards used by 58 companies in her paper "An Update on CSR Reporting." The companies used eight different international frameworks. At the end of her paper Cui summarized the advantages and disadvantages of all the frameworks. "If a company executive sees my paper, he or she will be able to find out which one is best for that company. For example, some are better for big corporations and some are better for smaller businesses," said Cui.
"Christy did a lot of really tedious research, going through all these different CSR frameworks, reading the minutiae and trying to understand how they were developed and what their strengths and weaknesses are. For example, who is using one standard versus another and why," said Straughan. "It's a pretty big topic and it's admirable that she was able to embrace it and make sense of it in a way that I think will really help."
Straughan pointed out that Cui was a sophomore when she decided to take on the research. "All the research I've done in the past has been with seniors," said Straughan. "So it's not just seniors who can grapple with this kind of research—first year and second year students are just as capable if they find the right topic."
Cui said that learning to conduct social science research under the guidance of Straughan and Oliver was the most valuable part of her summer. "Being able to do the research independently with just direction from the professors and not explicit instructions was very important and really beneficial for me," she said.
"An R.E. Lee Scholar like Christy has a substantial amount of time to focus on her research topic, more time than either Rob or I have because we are still doing our administrative jobs," said Oliver. "Because of this, everything that she learned through her research informed us as well."
Cui will continue her research throughout the academic year, using computer-based software to import all the data and produce a descriptive analysis to create a more useful standard for evaluating CSR reports.