Recognized by PR Week as one of America’s top three most-important business rankings, Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s “100 Best Corporate Citizens List” evaluates companies on 325 corporate social responsibility data points. This week we caught up with Elizabeth Boudrie, Vice President of Research for SharedXpertise (parent company of CR Magazine) to learn more about the methodology behind the ranking.
GT: With all the rankings out there, why should companies pay attention to this one? What makes this ranking unique?
EB: From a methodological standpoint, this is an audit versus a survey. One of the frustrations that I think a lot of people have in the corporate responsibility (CR) space is that “We get so many surveys, we have to pick and choose which one we’re going to do and we’re not going to do yours.”
We have to explain to people that it’s an involuntary audit—you don’t have to fill anything out. What we do is the IW Financial folks go and look for essential 325 data elements that are publicly disclosed for all Russell 1000 companies. There are a few data elements that are performance -based, but for the most part they’re disclosure-based. I think that the biggest way [the ranking is different] is that it’s very broad. We’re looking really across a broad spectrum of issues as opposed to others that are very specifically oriented to environment, social and governance (ESG), human rights or specific issues, versus our seven different categories.
GT: How did you come up with those categories?
EB: We have a methodology committee comprised of industry folks and academics and folks who together help us oversee the direction of the data elements and the whole process. And back when they originally started the process – I think this is the 13th year — they looked and said, “Ok, what are the main categories that we think make sense, that we think should be important?” And these are the categories that they came up with.
And over time, we continue to review them. They’re weighted differently based on how important the collective group thinks they are and over time we continue to review them and believe that these are the categories that do capture a broad picture of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
GT: And 2012 is the 13th year for the ranking?
EB: Yes. 2012 will be the 13th annual list.
GT: In the absence of widely agreed-upon performance metrics, I understand that many rankings currently rely on transparency as a proxy for progress. Is this the best way to evaluate companies?
EB: I think all of us would love to get past disclosure as the main determinant of ranks– and we do have some elements within our 300-some-odd data elements that are performance-based — but it’s predominantly disclosure-based. There aren’t enough people who are disclosing enough as it is. We have lots and lots of companies who disclose next to nothing out of the Russell 1000. We think of disclosure as the low bar, but if it’s the low bar there are a lot of people who aren’t stepping over it yet. So from that perspective, there’s still a long way to go.
The other issue is that with so many different companies doing so many different things, it’s very difficult to find a reasonable performance standard that you can apply across company size, across company industry, across company type. And I think everybody is still struggling to find out what that is in every ranking. So I think it’s a reasonable proxy for now because it’s the best we can do but I don’t think anybody’s happy with that forever. And I think everybody’s looking for a better way.
GT: What does transparency tell you about a company?
EB: Transparency maybe doesn’t tell you everything, but a company certainly doesn’t talk about things it’s doing poorly, typically. To us the willingness of a company to be transparent indicates strong management, a willingness to be self-reflective, to understand what’s going on within their environment—both within their own environment internally as well as externally– and it just demonstrates connection to what’s happening in the world right now. I think they’re recognizing over time that people are more interested in exactly what’s happening and that means being transparent about what’s happening with your organization, whether that’s your human rights record, whether that’s your impact on the environment, your philanthropic giving, all the categories we might address.
GT: How many of your top 100 companies are ‘repeat achievers’? How much turnover do you see year over year?
EB: It changes a fair amount. The turnover changes over time, which sort of depends on the changes in the methodology, the data set. We try to limit that so there isn’t so much impact, but there can be an impact. One of our data categories is financial performance and with the recent economic downturn that really impacted some folks. So there can be some churn.
GT: How often do you update your methodology?
EB: We try to take an evolutionary versus revolutionary approach. You’d hate to see 80 percent of the list change because it wouldn’t be meaningful…Ultimately what we’re trying to do is drive people to be as transparent as they can be. So ultimately if a company is being even more transparent in 2012 than 2011 we don’t want to penalize them randomly because the methodology has changed. So we’ll try to be very careful in doing that. What you’ll find is because it’s a comparative methodology a company can do exactly what they were doing the prior year and still fall in the ranking if other companies are doing better.
GT: How does the audit process work?
EB: IW Financial, as part of their process, sends out a correspondence file, which is an opportunity for a company that they’ve audited to review the file and make sure that everything is accurate. We’ve added a separate, additional review for companies that are potentially going to be ranked so they can have a second review.
GT: When does the ranking come out?
EB: In the Spring. This year it will come out in early April.
GT: What is the circulation of Corporate Responsibility Magazine?
GT: Is the ranking publicly available information? Or is it sold?
EB:The ranking is public. And free.