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Quest: An Incomplete Diagnosis

By Michelle Bernhart on March 21, 2011 at 12:21pm.
Quest Diagnostics is a world leader in diagnostic testing, information, and services, employing 43,000 people. Quest’s 2009 corporate citizenship report (published in 2010) is its second, but given that the first was a modest four-page summary (consisting of a cover, letter, and two-page highlights table), the current document feels like a first-time report.


Content:

The content is somewhat light but well-intentioned. With a corporate mission inextricably tied to human health and well-being, Quest devotes much attention to heath-related philanthropy, volunteering, and employee wellness and inclusion. Overall, it appears the company has organised its social responsibility approach into four “pillars” - community and giving, environment, employees and culture, and governance, but this is not entirely clear. The CEO letter, for instance, doesn’t mention pillars, but is organised into five main sections, several of which - but not all - correspond with the “pillars”. Quantifiable goals are notably absent from this report, save for a mention in the CEO letter of a carbon reduction goal of 5 percent. No timeline for this aspiration is provided.

While there is little evidence of other company-wide commitments to environmental improvement, it must also be recognised that Quest does not manufacture any products; therefore, its impacts are limited. Still, the company has room for improvement, as nearly all organisations do, and laboratories by nature have some energy-intensive needs, such as for compressed air, precise climate control, and refrigeration. The drive for improvement at Quest seems to rest with employee green teams, and the report says that some 80 projects have been undertaken to date. It is not known, however, what kinds of projects these teams have implemented as few examples are provided.

Data for 2007 – 2009 is presented in tables; no graphs are used. For a few metrics, including those related to energy and water consumption, both absolute and normalised data are shown. The normalisation variables are different for each, however, making the reader work harder to assess whether the company really improved. For example, energy is normalised by facility floor space, by number of full-time employees, and by number of patient encounters. These are all useful metrics, but readers really don’t need all three; one would be sufficient. To further confuse matters, water use is normalized by revenue, bringing to four the total number of normalisation variables, while waste data has not been normalised at all. It’s not clear what readers are to make of this, and the report doesn’t provide any explanation. On a positive note, the first Quest report also used these same normalisation factors, so the company is at least tracking its performance consistently over time.


Communication:

Earnest and lovely personal narratives introduce each section of the report, a nice touch. It’s too bad they’re overly long for a 14-page piece. A better balance of personal stories, performance data, and the projects or strategies supporting that performance would be welcome.

The report layout is simple and attractive, but slightly confusing in places. Some of the narratives are occasionally interrupted by green text describing a graph or image. In addition, the personal narratives start in a smaller font and some of them continue on the next page in large font, while some remain in small font, adding to the confusion about what one is reading. This reviewer happened to be reading a continued narrative but thought it was just regular report text until encountering the use of the first person toward the end of the section. Some head scratching and page flipping was necessary to determine exactly what was being presented—and by whom. In a report this short and simple, there is no excuse for this kind of confusion. Likewise, an unacceptable number of typos and occasionally clunky writing (e.g., “Additionally, employee volunteers have aided tremendously to the company-wide effort, and at no additional cost”) also detract from the quality of the report.

Context is frustratingly missing, with the exception of mentioning how many people will be diagnosed with cancer—a fact more closely related to Quest’s core services than to its continued sustainability improvement. And although the number of employees is provided in the report, the number of sites is not, rendering almost meaningless the inclusion of information such as the “number of sites included in survey”. The report also doesn’t say what survey is referred to, but presumably it was some sort of environmental and social performance data collection activity of an unknown percentage of Quest sites.


Credibility:

The credibility of this effort is difficult to assess because so little information is provided about data collection methodology, calculations, and estimates, as well as about the scope and boundary of the report. Likewise, stakeholders are not mentioned, so one assumes that the company decided on its own which issues would be addressed, without the benefit of engagement. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines were not used, nor was any assurance done. Despite this, the report feels largely credible. Data is provided in easy-to-read tables and no excuses are offered for metrics where performance failed to progress. Still, there is no description of the environmental or social challenges the company faces or its specific plans to address these, leaving significant room for improvement.


Recommendations:

1.    Use the GRI guidelines.
2.    Conduct a true materiality analysis with stakeholder input to determine which issues are material.
3.    Provide the context for the issues selected and reported on so that readers can properly assess ongoing performance.
4.    Consider using assurance to further drive internal accountability and enhance credibility.

Michelle Bernhart is the founder of True Blue Communications LLC, which helps organizations strengthen sustainability performance, achieve strategic objectives, enhance brand, and manage risk through credible and engaging communications. www.truebluecomm.com