How to Find a CSR Job in a Big Company
by James Epstein-Reeves
Even though it’s only March, graduation season is just around the corner. Before you know it, across the country, hundreds of thousands of individuals will be walking across the stage to receive a scroll that represents four years of hard work. It’s the start of a new life and a new career. So what’s a graduate to do if he or she is interested in a career in corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Here is some advice that I often offer to newly minted professionals looking to establish themselves in a career in CSR.
First and foremost, the two most important skills for a CSR-professional include:
- Communication. Knowing how to clearly articulate your own ideas either verbally or in writing is one of the most important and under-valued skill sets. In fact, I believe as our society leans more towards communicating “Twitter-style” in 140-characters or less, the ability to effectively communicate your ideas and those of your department will become an even greater asset to any professional, but especially a CSR professional. As I mentioned in a previous post, companies routinely fail to tell their own story effectively. If you know how to write and how to give a presentation, you will have a leg up in your career.
- Leadership. In my experience, there are very few large CSR departments out there – even within big companies. If you really want to excel in this field, you need to understand the power dynamics of an organization. Because resources are always tight in most companies, you have to learn how to influence people in your organization, often without formal authority such as a fancy title. What do employers look for to see if you’ve got what it takes to work in CSR? They’re looking for employees who can (with fabulous oral and written communication skills) professionally persuade people in other departments to change their behavior. You will need to work with other departments such as operations, marketing, legal, and human resources, to name only a few.
Here are some additional ideas:
- Get the basics done. To score a job in nearly any field, you have to cover the basics. Know how to write a cover letter, how to make your resume stand out, and how to interview well. There are plenty of resources online that offer tips on each of these, but it’s impossible to overstate how important it is to master the basics during any job search. Companies are bombarded with applications these days and they’re looking for reasons to narrow down the large pile of applications as quickly as possible. Don’t let simple mistakes undermine your four years of effort to get your degree.
- Check yourself. If you’re looking for a job in corporate social responsibility, you ought to know what CSR means. I can’t count how many times people have asked me for advice, only to discover that they think CSR is a synonym for philanthropy. It’s not. Yes, philanthropy is a part of a broader effort for companies to look at the business impact of their business operations. But if you’re interviewing with a company that has experience in CSR, you will likely undermine your chances if you’re unaware of the many other subjects that make up a full CSR strategy. Know how to define the field before you sit down across the table from the hiring manager.
- Be a champion outside of the CSR department. As I mentioned, most CSR departments aren’t heavy on the headcount. Naturally, this means that there are less opportunities to work in a company’s CSR department than, say, operations or finance. In fact, this is precisely where the opportunities are. For CSR professionals, one of the most useful things to have is a champion in another department – someone who “gets it.” These champions can help by being another voice outside of the “usual suspects” in a CSR department who can advocate for change in their organization. Paradoxically, it’s quite possible to have a larger impact on a company adopting CSR if you’re outside of a large company’s formal CSR department. It just depends on your level of engagement and your ability to influence others (sound familiar?). So when it comes to job seeking, expand your search beyond jobs that have “social responsibility” or “sustainability” in their titles. This is especially important because CSR departments don’t have a lot of entry-level positions available. Instead, for example, you could look for a position in a company’s supply chain department and get involved in logistics to reduce miles driven, fuel consumption, and carbon emissions.
- Environment, environment, environment. When I look into my crystal ball, it’s all about the environment. Climate change adaptation, carbon emissions, energy conservation, waste diversion, life-cycle analysis of products – these are all issues that are going to become even more important (it’s just a partial list, too). You will stand out amongst other applicants if you can point to meaningful professional or academic experience related to environmental issues.
- Get involved. So, let’s say that you just need a job, any job, after graduating. If you really want to “do” CSR, start creating a track record of involvement. As mentioned previously, you can start by reaching out to your company’s CSR department and finding out how you can help. But what if your company doesn’t have an entire department devoted to CSR? Get involved in other ways, such as by joining and/or taking a leadership role in phenomenal organizations like Net Impact. With chapters across the country, you can really roll up your sleeves. When interviewing, employers will likely see sustained involvement in organizations like Net Impact as a sign that you are truly interested in CSR. In addition, many larger cities are stepping up their interest in social responsibility or sustainability. The City of Chicago has the Chicago Climate Action Plan and offers ways you can get involved as volunteers through two organizations. Denver, Portland, New York, and Atlanta – just as a few examples – all have plans and programs related to sustainability. So do some research and get involved.