GE's Robert Corcoran Defines Corporate Social Responsibility at SHU

News Story: October 1, 2011
President Petillo and GE's Robert Corcoran

A company can be great and good, said Robert L. Corcoran, vice president of Corporate Citizenship at General Electric, when it employs the ideal of corporate social responsibility.  Corcoran was a guest of the Jack Welch College of Business’ “Conversations” Lecture Series on October 12.  Moderated by Sacred Heart University President John J. Petillo, the talk took place in the Schine Auditorium.

Corcoran, who also is the president of the GE Foundation and a trustee of SHU, has worked for the company for 32 years, living in 10 locations throughout the world in his tenure. He was born and raised in Boston and attended Catholic schools. Following high school, he enrolled in Northeastern University in the five-year co-op program, where he was required to take business classes, including business law, helping to chart his future course in the corporate world.

Asked by President Petillo to explain corporate social responsibility to the audience of Welch College students and faculty, Corcoran said GE looks at “three pillars” – make money, make it ethically and make a difference. “Citizenship at GE is more than a program or a set of good intentions - it is a full-time commitment built upon cultural behaviors and actions,” states the GE Citizenship website, www.gecitizenship.com. “You cannot be a responsible company without making money,” said Corcoran. “Making money is not a bad thing. Business has a positive force in the world.”

Employing the principles of corporate social responsibility at GE has its roots following the Enron and Worldcom financial scandals, and its own mistakes, and the question was posed to GE top-level executives about how to be accountable to stakeholders. In addition to fostering a climate of honesty, ethics and integrity, said Corcoran, about 40 executives are rigorously trained, including at the Harvard Kennedy School, with some of the greatest minds in business and academia to find solutions to problems.

Consistent corporate behavior at GE, he said, is employed into all facets of the company, here and around the world. “I can get fired three different ways,” he said, 1) lie cheat or steal, 2) failing to report an integrity violation by others and 3) not creating an informed culture of integrity in my organization. GE, he said, has embraced a “culture of ethical behavior, and we can thank Jack Welch for it.”

“No sale, no benefit gained inappropriately, is worth your job and the impact on your family,” he added. To simply explain corporate social responsibility, Corcoran used the analogy of a child who takes a candy bar from the checkout aisle display at a store without paying. A good parent, upon discovering the child’s action, would require him or her to return to the store to apologize.  The act itself is wrong, regardless of the amount involved “The simple lessons your parents taught you can be used in business,” he said.

During the question-and-answer session with students, Corcoran addressed a number of issues, including GE’s global business enterprises, human rights and the cleanup of the upper Hudson River.

In response to a question about the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Corcoran explained the mining situation in Central Africa, where armed groups continue to operate although the country’s civil war ended in 2003. It is reported that these groups are responsible for some of the world’s worst human rights violations. “Recognition of this link between the minerals trade and the financing of armed groups in the DRC has moved companies like GE to identify their use of potential conflict minerals and find ways to sever the link between these minerals and the armed groups,” states gecitizenship.com. Corcoran added, “GE doesn’t want to engage in business where human rights violations could be involved.”

As for the Hudson River cleanup, Corcoran said after a dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 90’s, GE agreed to settle the issue and clean up the waterway, into which polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were discharged. The company is in the second year of the dredging project, in which approximately 2.4 million cubic cards of sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river north of Albany, N.Y., will be removed. In addition to carting away the sediment and burying it, GE has processes in place to clean the riverbed and return the water to the Hudson. The project should take about five to seven years to complete.

A corporation having an ethical and responsible culture of doing business, Corcoran said, is paramount. “Over time, that comes back to you in the form of more business and more shareholder and stakeholder value.”