Management Plus: Local hero: your community needs you

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the increasingly competitive world of commerce, social responsibility is not generally listed among the prime considerations of business owners and company directors. But often they are the people best placed to show the benefits to all of a more integrated society, argues Jeremy Long.

When I was a director at entertainment company, Mecca, some 15 years ago, we made the decision to recruit and train our "bouncers" from the local community rather than through agencies. The bouncer's job required charm, tact and diplomacy and, sometimes, firm persuasion. Our strategy carried an element of risk: we were used to hiring people who were bouncers first, community members second - if at all.

We began recruiting local people, most of whom had received minimal education, some of whom had not worked before. What they did have, however, were good interpersonal skills, a sensitivity to the environment, a physical presence and an acute awareness of their community. They knew instinctively who would cause trouble and who would bring cachet to the club. They knew how to turn people away without offending them. And they could do this all the more effectively because they came from the same community.

The strategy was very successful - trouble dropped and attendance rose. This caused me to reflect on the benefits to business of living in an integrated society and on the role that business can play in including what Mandelson has called "the socially excluded". Chiefly, it showed me the good business sense of involving all elements of the community in one's business strategy.

Most businesses today are still reluctant to fully reflect the community in which they operate. A survey that Focus Central London recently conducted revealed that very few businesses would employ a homeless person, considering them a less suitable recruit than someone with a criminal record.

Social responsibility pays - we all benefit from living in a more integrated society. The myth that there is no return on social responsibility continues in spite of evidence to the contrary. By "social responsibility" I'm referring to the need for organisations to recognise that communities have enabled their success. Most businesses are, in some way, indebted to their local communities. Perhaps they recruit staff trained in local schools, finding them through the job centre. Perhaps those stafff are supported (emotionally, physically or financially) through local charities, gyms or initiatives. Perhaps their employees live in community housing.

So why should businesses invest in their communities? A community is like a jigsaw and a business is a vital piece of that. In a fractured community, the resources on which a business can draw are severely reduced. If, for example, there are no good schools in the vicinity, recruiting educated local people will be hard.

Likewise it's been widely acknowledged that there is a correlation between numbers of disadvantaged, unemployed people and level of crime, making businesses and their staff in such areas less secure. Interestingly, it has been proven that there is considerably less crime in areas where childcare and after-school clubs are readily available - initiatives which local employers could support. One large London hotel realised that having homeless people sleeping rough outside its entrance made guests feel uncomfortable and insecure (thus less likely to return) so the hotel offered the rough sleepers jobs and accommodation. This was good business with an immediate financial return but it was also socially responsible.

Not only are there clear, short term returns, but there are even more compelling long term returns. Let me give you a simple example - invest time and money in your local school now and in a few years time the pool of labour, with skills upon which you can draw will be considerably larger. Hire and train a refugee or a homeless person, for instance, and you are contributing to an economy which, in a decade's time, will be more prosperous for all of us. Moreover, surveys consistently show that people prefer working for socially responsible companies, that they feel more motivated working for companies that care.

But the business arguments for social responsibility withstanding, I believe we also have a moral obligation to put something back into society, to help create a society that will benefit us all - to acknowledge with our time, expertise and funding, the debt we owe to the communities that enable us to thrive.

So what can companies actually do? Welfare to Work, the Government's initiative to get long term unemployed people back to work, is dependent on the backing of business - the Government knows that the battle to win over business will be long and fiercely fought. But I urge companies to get involved, to give young, unemployed people a chance. The Welfare to Work scheme should begin in certain pilot areas towards the end of this year. If your business operates in one of the pilot areas, offer to co- operate.

There are a raft of programmes designed to build links between schools and businesses. Encourage your employees to become mentors to local people. Write to the local youth centres, schools or colleges offering your company's time for mentoring. Think about becoming a corporate mentor to a smaller but growing, local business - call your local Business Links, Enterprise Agency or the local TEC to see if there are any appropriate start-ups in your area.

There are numerous other contributions that a company can make to its local community - and the contribution you choose will depend on your needs, the nature of your business and the type of skills you have to offer.

If we continue to bury our heads, ostrich-like in our businesses, concerned only with the immediate bottom line and blinkered by the comforts of routine, we risk long-term economic failure. Businesses are not just about fast returns - they have responsibilities. Carrying out those responsibilities, in my view, also makes very good business sense.

The time has come for all of us to wake up to our responsibilities, to recognise the symbiotic relationships we have with our communities and to put something back - in the knowledge that it will benefit both society and the balance sheet.

Jeremy Long is the chief executive of Focus Central London, the UK's largest Training and Enterprise Council, covering Central London.