From Stakeholder Management to Stakeholder Accountability: Applying Habermasian Discourse Ethics to Accountability Research

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From Stakeholder Management to Stakeholder Accountability: Applying Habermasian Discourse Ethics to Accountability Research

Andreas Rasche University of the Armed Forces, Hamburg Daniel E. Esser London School of Economics and Political Science

Published in: Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 65, No. 3, pp. 251-267

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From Stakeholder Management to Stakeholder Accountability
Applying Habermasian Discourse Ethics to Accountability Research

ABSTRACT: Confronted with mounting pressure to ensure accountability vis-à-vis customers, citizens and beneficiaries, organizational leaders need to decide how to choose and implement so-called accountability standards. Yet while looking for an appropriate standard, they often base their decisions on cost-benefit calculations, thus neglecting other important spheres of influence pertaining to more broadly defined stakeholder interests. We argue in this paper that, as a part of the strategic decision for a certain standard, management needs to identify and act according to the needs of all stakeholders. We contend that the creation of a dialogical understanding among affected stakeholders cannot be a mere outcome of applying certain accountability standards, but rather must be a necessary precondition for their use. This requires a stakeholder dialogue prior to making a choice. We outline such a discursive decision framework for accountability standards based on the Habermasian concept of communicative action and, in the final section, apply our conceptual framework to one of the most prominent accountability tools (AA 1000).

KEY WORDS:

accountability

standards,

discourse

ethics,

Habermas,

organizational

accountability, stakeholder management, stakeholder dialogue

ABBREVIATIONS: AA 1000 (AccoutAbility 1000), GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), ISEA (Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility), ISO (International Organization for Standardization), ISEA (Institute of Social and Ethical Accounting, Auditing, and Reporting), NGO (Non-Governmental

Organization), SA 8000 (Social Accountability 8000).

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1 Introduction – Context and Motivation
Managers of corporations, government and non-government actors alike are increasingly confronted with expectations relating to “organizational accountability” based on sound ethical performance (Logsdon and Lewellyn, 2000). As a result, this concept has witnessed growing theoretical recognition during the past decade. Social and ethical accountability, often also described as social accounting (Ramanathan, 1976; Gray, 2002) or Social and Ethical Accounting, Auditing, and Reporting (SEAAR) deals with the measurement, assessment and communication of social and ethical performance. Whereas there is ongoing discussion about the very nature and theoretical justification of the concept itself (de Colle and Gonella, 2002; Gray, 2001; Owen and Swift, 2001; Owen et al., 2000; Mathews, 1997; Ramanathan, 1976), we are, in parallel, also witnessing a proliferation of so-called accountability standards. Standards such as Social Accountability 8000 (SA 8000) or the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provide commonly accepted frameworks to measure, verify and communicate accountability related information. However, in a rapidly burgeoning jungle of available standards (for recent reviews see Leipziger, 2003; McIntosh et al., 2003; Göbbels and Jonker, 2003; Martin, 2002 and Goodell et al., 1999), organizations and their stakeholders face a tough question: which standard is right for their specific situation, their set of needs? It is conspicuous that this decision making process is often regarded as a management task. However, this leads to what Owen et al. (2000) call ‘managerial capture’, a situation in which the whole process of social accounting is controlled by management and therefore lacks an accountable determination of scope.

In this paper we argue that such an approach also leads to a paradox: because...
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