Corporations are increasingly offering employees the chance to engage in social impact work. But is doing social good also good for your career?

These days many people are looking for more from their professional roles than the duties listed in their job description, and they expect their employers to provide them with the opportunity to explore meaningful work beyond the corporate world.

Companies that meet these expectations have a lot to gain. Studies show that they benefit from improved recruitment, mitigation against adverse employee behaviour and employee retention. However, it does not necessarily translate that those who volunteer actually benefit in terms of career advancement. In fact, we have found that in some cases, it can hold them back.

For men, it may be career damaging to take part in socially motivated work

We carried out two studies which revealed some of the reasons for this unexpected consequence of corporate social initiatives (CSI). For the first study, we used human resource data on 1,379 employees in a large multinational consulting firm to observe employees’ project assignments, including their participation in social impact initiatives, and crucially, the rate of promotion from the rank of consultant to manager over a five-year period.

In a second study, we asked nearly 900 middle managers across different companies in the UK and US to evaluate a fictional accountancy employee up for promotion. The managers, a mix of men and women, were all experienced in hiring and promoting. Everything about the fictional employee profile was identical except gender and job history. The fictional employee named Amanda or Matthew had either undertaken a spell of social impact work or completed a commercial project for a corporate client. 

Gender as a key factor in promotion effects

Together, the results of the studies revealed a critical factor affecting decision makers’ judgments regarding promotions of employees who participated in social impact work: gender. But in a different way than is usually observed in studies of gender bias in organisations. 

Our first study showed that male employees who did CSI projects were less likely to be promoted. In our second study, we discovered that the gender of the manager making the decision also mattered. Male managers penalised male employees more than females for undertaking CSI projects, rather than profitable corporate work, and hence were far less likely to recommend them for promotion. But when a male manager assessed a female employee, whether she’d undertaken social impact work or not made no difference to the likelihood of promotion. Nor did female managers discriminate in any way towards either men or women.

We also investigated why. Our experimental design meant we could rule out effects of all employee characteristics other than the social impact work, such performance, tenure or education. Instead, our experiment revealed that male managers judged men who carried out social impact work as not being the right “fit” for the company.

For their female counterparts, again it made no difference. These results reinforce research that shows we expect men and women to conform to strict gender stereotypes and social norms in the professional environment. Unfortunately, for men, it may be career damaging to take part in socially motivated work. 

The problem with gender stereotyping in the workplace 

Communal, service-orientated behaviour associated with social impact work is closely related to the behaviour expected of women. Men are often penalised for succeeding in jobs with these characteristics because their success violates stereotypical ideals of men’s roles in society. 

Over recent years, corporate social initiatives have acquired strategic business importance and numbers have soared. But our research calls attention to the gendered nature of CSI work and the potential for negative career consequences for those who in engage in it, as well as the evaluators’ gender bias in promotion decisions.

Corporate social initiatives give employees the chance to engage in philanthropic projects and contribute to society

It also reveals a previously unidentified tension between business and society. A firm’s efforts to engage with society through employee initiatives may conflict with its members’ gender beliefs, consequently limiting male employees’ ability to contribute to the firm’s social impact agenda. It may also signal a new form of job segregation by gender that is harmful to female employees. If only female employees fill these types of roles, the social engagement of firms risks becoming only women’s work as business engages with society.

One worry is that these socially orientated positions may be viewed as less valuable than commercial ones, meaning women may inadvertently assume roles that have poorer longer-term career prospects, even though their near-term promotions remain unaffected.

For social impact work to deliver benefits, attitudes within the corporate world must change and gender beliefs be updated. This is a challenge not only for business but for all of society.

This article draws on findings from “Up to No Good? Gender, Social Impact Work, and Employee Promotions” by Christiane Bode (Imperial College Business School), Michelle Rogan (Imperial College Business School) and Jasjit Singh (INSEAD).

Michelle Rogan_profile image

About Michelle Rogan

Associate Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship
Dr Rogan's research centres on how individual and firm social capital affects entrepreneurship and innovation. She was previously a faculty member at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and, prior to that, INSEAD.

Her research has been published in several top journals, including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Management Science and the Annual Review of Sociology. She teaches topics related to innovation management, corporate entrepreneurship and networks on postgraduate and executive education programmes.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile
Christiane Bode

About Christiane Bode

Assistant Professor of Strategy
Dr Bode's research focuses on the micro-processes underlying the corporate social engagement of firms. Two broad questions shape her research agenda. First she seeks to answer how employees acting as entrepreneurs drive the corporate social engagement of firms and second, she analyses how firms can use the preferences of employees to create a strategic link between such engagement and firm performance.

She joined from Bocconi University, where she was an Assistant Professor of Strategy. Prior to that she received by BA in Economics and Psychology from New York University (NYU) and she holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE) and PhD in Strategy from INSEAD.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile

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