UNDERSTANDING ATTRIBUTIONS OF CORPORATE SOCIAL IRRESPONSIBILITY DONALD LANGE Arizona State University NATHAN T. WASHBURN Thunderbird School of Global Management Notwithstanding the significance to organizations of external reactions to bad behavior, the corporate social responsibility literature tends to focus on the meaning of and expectations for responsible behavior, rather than on the meaning of irresponsible behavior. Here we develop a theoretical perspective that explicitly focuses on irresponsibility and that particularly helps explain attributions of social irresponsibility in the minds of the firm’s observers. In contrast to approaches in the corporate social responsibility literature that tend to deemphasize the role of the individual perceiver of firm behavior in favor of emphasizing such broader social structures as value systems, institutions, and stakeholder relations, our focus is on how the social reality of external expectations for social responsibility is rooted in the perceptions of the beholder. We draw on attribution theory to describe how attributions of irresponsibility stem from the observer’s subjective assessments of effect undesirability, corporate culpability, and affected party noncomplicity. We describe how those assessments affect each other and how they are influenced by the observer’s perceptions of effect and firm characteristics and by the observer’s social identification with the affected party or the implicated corporation. We conclude by describing the important role of frames on irresponsibility attributions.
Widespread external perceptions that a firm has acted in a socially irresponsible manner can have negative consequences for a firm, since an organization’s success—indeed its survival— depends, in part, on satisfying normative expectations from its environment (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978; Scott, 2008). When organizational action seems controversial to observers and constituents, the firm risks losing current and potential members, as well as outside endorsement and support, and it risks providing “ammunition for adversaries” (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992: 712). An organization that is seen as a bad actor in society can have a hard time attracting customers, investors, and employees (Fombrun, 1996). Indeed, ample evidence from empirical research shows that counternormative behavior can lead to such consequences for the firm as lawsuits, financial losses through settlements and sales declines, increases in the cost of capital, market share deterioration, network partner We are grateful to former associate editor Jean-Philippe Bonardi and the three anonymous reviewers for providing challenging and insightful feedback throughout the review process. 300
loss, or other costs associated with a negative reputation (e.g., Baucus & Baucus, 1997; Davidson, Worrell, & Cheng, 1994; Haunschild, Sullivan, & Page, 2006; Karpoff, Lee, & Martin, 2008; Strachan, Smith, & Beedles, 1983). In spite of the demonstrated significance to organizations of reactions to bad behavior, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature tends to focus on the meaning of and expectations for responsible behavior, rather than on the meaning of irresponsible behavior. Irresponsibility, distinct from responsibility, is often not discussed explicitly in the CSR literature,1 but the implication is that irresponsibility is simply the opposite side of the responsibility coin—that is, the failure to act responsibly. Here we develop a theoretical perspective that explicitly focuses on irresponsibility and that particularly helps explain attributions of social irresponsibility in the minds of the firm’s observers. 1 A number of counterexamples to this tendency include Mattingly and Berman (2006); Strike, Gao, and Bansal (2006); Doh, Howton, Howton, and Siegel (2010); and Muller and Kräussl (2011).
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