Sarah Desirée Schäfer | Foto: aau/Müller

Performing good deeds and keeping employees informed

When companies perform good deeds, they do this for different reasons: From altruism to image considerations – the motives for so-called CSR measures are manifold. What is essential, however, is that CSR measures must be perceived as credible by the employees, as they are often the ones who constitute the “face” of a company. They implement the CSR measures and communicate the commitment beyond the borders of the company. Sarah Desirée Schäfer is investigating the perception and evaluation as well as the impact of CSR measures and CSR communication upon employees.

As well as erecting power plants in mountainous regions, a large Austrian energy service provider is also building fish ladders to reduce the damage caused by the construction works. Of course, it serves the company well that the staff are well-informed about this measure and can communicate the commitment or, respectively, the acceptance of social responsibility to the outside world. In her work on her doctoral thesis, the business economist Sarah Desirée Schäfer – supported by her doctoral supervisors Sandra Diehl and Ralf Terlutter – is investigating how communication about measures of this kind is perceived and evaluated, and what effect these measures subsequently have upon the employees in the company.

For decades, the companies’ perspective took central stage in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) research. The research efforts devoted scant attention to those who plan the social responsibility of organisations, are committed and communicate this commitment across the boundaries of the organisation. It is within this context that Sarah Desirée Schäfer has defined the scope of her research. She views employees as absolutely key, when it comes to transporting a message: “They represent the face of a company. In times of dense information flows and growing scepticism towards CSR measures, messages delivered in person are gaining importance. Employees know what a company does well.” What is more, the impact of organisational CSR commitment upon the staff should not be underestimated. One of the positive effects is that the experience of a meaningful activity contributes to greater employee satisfaction.

In order to carry out her research, Schäfer spends time in the “authentic” realm of companies. Having completed her survey amongst the staff of a large Austrian corporation, she is now looking further afield to other countries, in order to be able to compare her findings.

The crossing of borders – be they of disciplines or of countries – is a key feature of Sarah Desirée Schäfer’s educational career to date: She studied Business Administration with an emphasis on trade in Stuttgart and London, while simultaneously working part-time. In a next step, she came to Klagenfurt, to study Psychology and Applied Business Administration. She tells us how these disciplines can be combined: “People are very important to me. A company needs employees who love what they do. Without qualified and motivated staff, there can be no economic success.” She thus arrived at the group of topics referred to as “Business Ethics” and started to look at the issue of ethical leadership. “To be honest, I feel that even this does not go quite far enough. It is far more efficient to ensure that the obligation of a company to reach decisions and pursue strategies, which are fully aligned with the values and aims of our society, is firmly anchored at the very top of the corporate strategy.” This is how Sarah Desirée Schäfer ultimately found her research gap. Having completed her studies, she returned to Stuttgart, where she worked for a medium-sized company, providing consultancy services on Business Intelligence issues. Finally, it was the position as PreDoc Scientist at the Department of Organization, Human Resources, and Service Management that brought her back to Klagenfurt and to the university. She has around 18 months left to complete her doctoral thesis. Sarah Desirée Schäfer is adamant about her “love of the combination of science and practice.” She therefore hopes to pursue opportunities that will allow her to merge these spheres once she has completed her doctoral studies. In response to the question about CSR at the university, she tells us: “In terms of CSR and employee involvement, the AAU is making really great progress. Amongst the many areas covered, there is a good range of offers, particularly for young scientists: There are funding programmes to encourage mobility, to stimulate mentoring efforts, and to advance further education. Overall, the commitment is exemplary.”

A few words with … Sarah Desirée Schäfer

What would you be doing now, if you had not become a scientist?

I would be working in consultancy.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

Yes, that is what is so great about my topic – at some point everyone gets to deal with this issue.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the office in the morning?

My colleague and I prepare tea together, to help us face the day ahead.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

That’s tricky. I’m not very good at switching off.

What makes you furious?


What calms you down?

Spending time in nature, either hiking in the mountains, skiing or running in the Kreuzbergl woods.

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

That’s easy: Thomas Edison. Without him, we would not have electricity, and a world without electricity is simply unimaginable.

What are you embarrassed about?

Hmmm… honest answer? … I’m embarrassed that I can’t seem to keep plants alive.

What are you afraid of?

Current political developments.

What are you looking forward to?

The future.