Breaking into the world of corporate citizenship ratings and rankings

Corporate-Citizenship-Ratings-&-Rankings For most of us, the days of receiving a report card are behind us, but that doesn’t mean that—as corporate citizenship professionals—our work is no longer evaluated and judged. The acronyms may have changed from GRE and LSAT to DJSI, CDP, GRI, etc.—but the assessments can still represent important achievements as well as reminders of where we need to work harder.

The world of corporate citizenship ratings and rankings can be just as intimidating to a novice as exams are to students, as the options and methods of submitting materials has increased exponentially over the past decade.

During the Center’s 2015 International Corporate Citizenship Conference, I had the pleasure to moderate an expert panel—comprised of Amanda Chiampi, director of citizenship and sustainability at AT&T Inc., Catherine McGlown, corporate social responsibility lead at Humana Inc., and Julia Wilson, manager of corporate social responsibility for Nielsen Cares at The Nielsen Company—that tackled the complex world of ratings and rankings. Check out some of the top tips that resulted from that session below. If you want to learn even more methods for getting the word out about your corporate citizenship initiatives, consider joining us for a course: Corporate Citizenship Frameworks and Standards: An Introduction to Reporting and Disclosure Standards, and Guidance Frameworks.

1. Do your homework

The universe of ratings and rankings is a large one and growing every year. The surveys and awards available to your company focus on many dimensions of corporate citizenship—from diversity and human rights to carbon footprints and water usage. Check out the scope of the questionnaire and don’t be afraid to say no if it’s not a priority area for your company or you haven’t fully developed programs and policies in that area. Focus on the ratings and rankings that are critical to your company’s corporate citizenship strategy. Also, consider the agency conducting the survey. What is the financial cost involved (above and beyond the internal time and resource cost)? How transparent is the agency regarding its methodology? Is there a help line or contact person during the process? What feedback is available after and will that be an additional cost? Your final score should not be the ultimate goal but the learnings you take away from the process (see point 6).

2. Group work

Unlike the SAT’s or GRE’s, you will not succeed on these “tests” if you try to go it alone. Corporate citizenship ratings and rankings are looking at your entire company, just as corporate citizenship encompasses the environmental, social, and governance activities from throughout the company. You will need a team of subject matter experts (SME’s) to complete these surveys well. If you have a corporate citizenship council or board you can start there to identify the SME’s for your company. If not, familiarize yourself with the survey tool and where that information is housed in your company. Formalize the list of SME’s for future surveys. Build in a process to educate SME’s as to why the rating/framework is important to the company’s business, how the information will be used, and what the expectations are of them. Many companies develop a toolkit for SME’s so they understand the process, timing, and business reasons.

3. Show your work

If a rating agency cannot see publically what you are doing, they often cannot give you a rating. Some companies have found that even though they have a policy internally, they do not score as well as companies that are more transparent. One of the first steps in the process is to look internally at informal policies and start the process to formalize them. Also, start to consider how much information your company is comfortable sharing. Many companies find publishing a sustainability report to be the first step as they enter the ratings process, yet the timing of your communication is also important. Releasing your sustainability report the month after an important rating agency closes its process means they did not have access to your latest information.

Sharing work internally is also important. One best practice used by companies is creating an internal central shared space for collected information from SME’s. Not all awards and surveys are handled by the corporate citizenship team. Make a decision as to which department has the best information on the subject matter and let them take the lead, but make sure all parties coordinate efforts and share information to present a consistent and accurate picture of your company.

4. Check your answers

It is not just your score you should be focused on; it’s also your company’s reputation. Third party assurance of your full report offers the highest level of credibility. However, many companies have yet to take that step—usually due to resource constraints. A growing number of companies are externally auditing some of their practices, usually starting with those relating to the environment. For those companies not quite ready for third party assurance, a best practice is to use already established internal audit tools to run some checks. This goes a long way toward making things run smoother with your legal department.

5. Take the practice test

Preparing a mock application can help reveal areas of concern for the company as well as your strengths. This can help you focus on ratings and rankings you are best prepared to be measured on. It can also help prepare SME’s to collect the required sensitive information and it will give you a sense of timing that is necessary to complete the process.

Be sure to leverage past surveys and applications. Talk to the rating agency to see where you can improve or why you did so well. Share that information internally with other departments. Send information to SME’s and have them react to it instead of starting with a blank slate. Those that have been through the process share that this speeds things up and builds strong working relationships.

6. Apply what you learn

If increasing your score is the only goal of participating in the rating process, then no matter what your grade, you have failed. The true value comes from feeding the learning back into the company. It should lead to discussion with senior leaders, investor relations, and other business units on prioritizing environmental, social, and governance initiatives happening in your company. It can help reveal business opportunities and risks in a new light. Some companies have seen the process lead to a materiality assessment, making the connection between business and citizenship issues such as data privacy, carbon footprint, and diversity and inclusion. Improved business processes and increased transparency are far more valuable to all companies than the final score.