When the Caring Company award was launched 10 years ago, those of us involved saw it as a way to encourage the creation of closer ties between the business sector and, via social service groups, the disadvantaged. We realised some companies might see it mainly as a public relations exercise, but we were confident it would also raise awareness and bring previously distant parts of the community closer together.
It has been a great success. Hundreds of partnerships have formed between companies and the less privileged. Thousands of employees have spent time on charitable projects and there are inspiring stories about smaller companies, in particular, forging new links with the community. Many corporations accepted guidance from social service groups on how to improve employment opportunities for the disadvantaged.
In order to be one of the 2,200 corporations displaying the Caring Company logo, an organisation needs to meet fairly modest criteria and be renominated by a social service group every year.
However, increasingly, the media, politicians and activists are questioning whether particular companies should keep the title after, say, cutting jobs or raising prices. The most recent example was CLP Power's proposal to raise tariffs last month.
For this reason, the award scheme now has a channel to accept public comments on awardees. Public opinion expects the logo to mean something, and it seems the expectations are rising every year.
This, of course, raises much-debated questions about corporate social responsibility in general. Should a company simply focus on shareholders' interests, and maximise its profits within the law? (This implies maintaining a good reputation, and thus seeking 'good PR', but purely in terms of self-interest.) Or should it go further and see itself as a citizen, even sacrificing shareholders' interests if they conflict in some way with those of the community?
Most of us in business might prefer a situation where the government had such a clear legal and regulatory system that anything good was legal and anything bad was banned. We would know that simply by sticking to the law we could focus on profit with a clear conscience.
But life is not that simple, and companies can find themselves in a position where they can make more profit by damaging the interests of others - and be within the law. In some cases, we might be able to rationalise these actions. For example, if a company does not downsize, it will be uncompetitive and the whole organisation will close. On the other hand, forcing elderly people to sell their homes after 80 per cent of the other owners in the block have agreed to sell is bound to raise serious moral issues.
Many would argue that Hong Kong has a lack of balance between corporate and community interests, especially with regards to consumers. Our political system is not fully democratic, so even if public opinion wants change, it is hard to achieve. The public, politicians and others have come to see the Caring Company award as one compensation for this.
With some 10 years' experience, I think we can now see clearly what the award actually means. It is fairly easy to tick the boxes necessary to qualify for the award, but the effort does not end once you have put the logo on your corporate website and stationery. It is not a one-off achievement; it is the beginning of a company's commitment to meet higher standards and to behave or explain itself accordingly.
Those standards may rise along with public expectations, so companies may have to try harder to meet the criteria - and even then, ticking every box would not mean 'mission accomplished'. The criteria are probably not perfect. This is an undertaking to think and behave in ways that some companies may find difficult. But, then again, no company is forced to apply for the award.
Bernard Chan is chairman of the Caring Company Scheme Steering Committee and a former member of the executive and legislative councils