Many business schools promote the value of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and require M.B.A. students to study ethics, particularly in light of scandals surrounding Enron, Bernard Madoff, and others.
But some say the concept of self-regulated corporate ethics—commonly known as CSR—can be confusing, particularly as schools and industries increasingly refer to it by new names such as "social entrepreneurship," "social enterprise," "business and peace," and a "blended-value model."
"There's a total lack of clarity regarding what social enterprise is and what social business is," says David Poritz, cofounder of Equitable Origin, an Ecuador-based company that certifies environmentally and socially responsible energy companies.
Poritz's cofounder and fellow Brown University alumnus, Christian Seale, says CSR refers to a more expansive vision of companies' missions than traditional for-profit companies tend to espouse. "The one thing that really differentiates [what] I'll call 'business as usual' to blended value, social entrepreneurship, [and] social enterprise is now the mission is not only [to] generate shareholder return, but also generate positive social and environmental impact," says Seale.
Students who aspire to work in CSR may face more challenges than just the lack of clarity that Poritz describes. Some professors as well as business and nonprofit professionals say CSR jobs may come with lower salaries. And the field is evolving, as companies are dismantling CSR departments and adopting a CSR strategy where the entire company, rather than a single department, takes social responsibility into account. And, some researchers have noted that companies with the worst social responsibility records—such as British American Tobacco and BP—can be some of the ones that talk the most about the importance of CSR.
"Responsible managements don't need to trumpet it or use it as a marketing tool, because they know actions speak louder than words. Responsibility is, in effect, implicit," says Lee Igel, who teaches organizational behavior at New York University.
[Read about how some b-schools are reinventing the M.B.A.]
Students seeking jobs in CSR can navigate this obstacle course if they are strategic, and they can learn a lot about a company's priorities by asking the right questions, experts say.
"I always recommend that students ask questions around values of a company. I know that sounds very 'motherhood and apple pie,' but it's really, really important to go to a company where you feel that they share the same values as the ones that you hold yourself," says Jo Mackness, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California—Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Mackness says salaries in corporate responsibility roles can be "slightly less" than average starting M.B.A. salaries. That's why she recommends that interested students seek traditional roles in areas such as marketing, finance, or product development or management rather than jobs that focus on corporate responsibility.
"We are seeing a trend toward smaller CSR departments," she says, "but more and more we're finding that sustainability is owned within the various different aspects of a business."
[Learn about the environmentally friendly M.B.A.]
As sustainability and CSR proliferates within companies, the nonprofit B Lab certifies socially and environmentally conscious companies, which it calls B Corps, much like TransFair endorses Fair Trade coffee and the U.S. Green Building Council sanctions LEED buildings. B Lab, which was founded in 2006 and is based in Pennsylvania, counts the Rockefeller Foundation, Deloitte, and the U.S. Agency for International Development among its donors.
Nathan Gilbert, a program associate at B Lab, warns students seeking employment in the CSR field to watch out for "green washing"—or companies masquerading as part of the green movement—and to examine transparent accounts of businesses' activities, such as the certification his employer issues.
[Read about the sustainable M.B.A.]
That emphasis on transparency also resonates with the cofounders of the sustainable energy industry certifier Equitable Origin.
Poritz says when students apply for jobs, they should ask questions about staffing, resources, and which department houses CSR to get an accurate sense of a company's practices.
"You can interview the interviewer," he says.
Searching for a grad school? Get our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.