Corporate Moral Credits

Companies’ CSR policies may be leading to corporate irresponsibility

Firms that focus on a CSR agenda often feel they have accrued “moral credits” that allow them to behave irresponsibly later, according to new research (article and findings from research by Margaret Ormiston, 2013).
Donating vast amounts of money to arts groups, scholarship funds, and local medical centres or improving an oil and gas company’s safety record generally seem like actions that benefit a company’s stakeholders. But could these socially responsible actions have unintended negative consequences for these same stakeholders? A logical assumption is that corporate actions made in the interests of stakeholders – including customers, employees, community and the environment – benefit those stakeholders. Research, however, found that a critical consequence of corporate social responsibility is, perversely, corporate social irresponsibility.
The halo effect? New research suggests companies with CSR policies believe they accrue ‘moral credits’ to be offset against later negative actions. Photograph: Bob King/AP
In a study of Fortune 500 companies, it was found that firms that engaged in socially responsible behaviour towards their stakeholders are subsequently more likely to engage in socially irresponsible behaviour towards their same stakeholders at a later point. Enron is one such example. For all its giving, we know now that Enron also engaged in surreptitious accounting fraud that eventually cost shareholders $11bn (£6.73bn) when its stock price dropped from nearly $100 per share to $1 at the end of 2001. In 2008, the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, announced that BP’s safety record, which was one of his key focuses as head of BP, was “now among the best in our industry”. Under his leadership, BP ran operational safety training sessions for its employees and encouraged a culture of safety in an effort to attend to key stakeholders such as employees, the community and the environment. However, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion shattered BP’s positive safety record when managers missed key safety warning signs, resulting in the loss of 11 lives and creating the worst offshore oil spill in US history.
Why would firms exhibit unethical behaviour after having previously engaged in socially responsible behaviour towards their stakeholders? Is it simply because they are led by one or two bad apples or is it something more? Unfortunately, it cannot be chalked up to a few rogue elements. Psychological research indicates that this kind of behaviour is fairly common: everyday people engage in morally questionable behaviour after strong records of CSR. During an experimental session, researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that people who purchased “green” products that were advertised as good for the environment were subsequently less altruistic towards others and more likely to lie in order to receive a greater payout.
One rationale put forth by social psychologists for this phenomenon is that moral behaviour is like a monetary currency. CEOs with a track record of taking care of their stakeholders are more likely to feel justified in breaking with that record at a later date because of a sense that they have accrued “moral credits” from their prior ethical behaviour. This is because we naturally seek to maintain a moral balance between good and bad deeds. Developing and implementing CSR strategy helps leaders create a moral image of themselves and their firm, which ultimately provides a sense of accumulated moral credits. These moral credits mean they feel justified in engaging in less ethical behaviour and being less vigilant in managing the needs of their stakeholders. This bank of moral credits allows leaders to think that they can behave in a socially undesirable way without fear of discrediting their image. It’s akin to someone who is a healthy eater for 11 months out of 12 and indulges during the holiday season. A generally healthy diet gives them confidence that they will not be discredited as an unhealthy person.
Research found that for every five positive actions a firm undertook for its stakeholders, it committed one negative action further down the line. For example, an organisation might take five positive actions such as giving more than 1.5% of its earnings to charity, then subsequently engage in controversial behavior that negatively affects a community’s economics (eg reducing property value within a community). Moreover, findings suggest that this relationship between socially responsible and irresponsible behaviour is even stronger in firms with CEOs who attempt to put forth a moral image. Given the propensity for even “ethical” companies to engage in morally questionable behaviour after a previously strong record in CSR, it is important to consider what “everyday” organisations can do to minimise this negative consequence of corporate social responsibility. CEOs and top executives need to be made aware of this tendency so that they can prevent their companies from falling into this pattern. Additionally, corporate boards cannot allow CEOs to rest on their laurels. Boards need to closely monitor CEOs’ management of their firms’ varied stakeholders. Ironically, this is especially important after a particularly good year in stakeholder relations – article attributed to Margaret Ormiston (Guardian Professional), 10th December 2013

2 thoughts on “Corporate Moral Credits

  1. David Derbowka says:

    Its a big step too for the “greedy guts” to admit to their wrongs. People are damn good and stubborn. Climate change with the discomfort it will and has brought is still not enough. The young will simply push the fossils aside, I think. …
    Dave Derbowka
    Sent on the TELUS Mobility network with BlackBerry

    • paulbrander says:

      If you say it can’t be done there is only one option and that is to prove yourself right. This appears to be the stance of the corporations.

      Thanks for your comment David

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