[We’re pleased to welcome Elise Perrault of College of Charleston. Elise recently published an article in Business & Society, entitled “What have firms been doing? Exploring what KLD data report about firms’ corporate social performance (CSP) in the period 2000-2010,” with co-author Michael Quinn of Bentley University.]
With a strong interest for firms’ relationship with stakeholders and, more broadly, society, we constantly read about how firms address – or not – a wide variety of social issues. However, this stream of research generally provides anecdotal evidence or analyzes antecedents and consequences of firms’ involvement in a targeted issue (such as philanthrophy or environmental management, for example). In short, we felt the need for a broad, 30,000 ft, view of how firms generally engage with stakeholders through addressing social issues. At the same time, with the soaring popularity of KLD data in the field, we wanted to gain a more precise appreciation of how this data source pictured firms’ actions in society.
We find our results quite revealing and at times surprising. For instance, the results show that firms are increasingly attending to secondary stakeholders, even while garnering more concerns on primary stakeholder dimensions. This points us to question whether managers are experiencing shifting beliefs regarding the value of CSR; specifically that it represents less a mechanism to attract stakeholder support and more a cornerstone to their risk management approach in terms of how society values the firm’s existence. We also find, as expected, that firms generally nurture strengths in the same dimensions in which they present concerns.
The most surprising finding is the extent to which prior corporate social performance (CSP) in a given dimension is linked to CSP in other dimensions over time. This suggests that as firms engage in CSP, they find rewards that drives them to further invest in yet other dimensions of CSP. As a result, we are led to reconsider the notion of a “virtuous circle” (Waddock & Graves, 1997) and suggest that future research examines in greater depth the real benefits that firms perceive from CSP and the motives that drive their increasing commitment to CSP.
Having provided this broader view of firms’ involvement with stakeholders and social issues, we hope this research will serve as a foundation for future research in several ways. For starters, we note the significance of industry dummies in the analysis. This finding confirms what previous research indicates, that industry matters to CSP strenghts and concerns. However, the extent to which industry affiliation predisposes a population of firms to certain CSP strenghts or concerns remains unaddressed. Pushing further in this direction would be to explore how industry affiliation affects stakeholders’ perceptions, and whether stakeholders are more forgiving or scrutinizing of firms in certain industries, for example.
Another insight from our analyses is the importance of using a long time frame when analyzing firms’ CSP, which has seldom been used in previous research. Doing so would enable researchers to see patterns and connections between various dimensions of CSP, answering questions such as “Do strengths (concerns) on certain dimensions of CSP generally prompt firms to subsequently perform better or worse on these and other dimensions?” While this would shed light on the ways in which firms can be primed to address certin social issues, on a broader scale, these analyses contribute to the conversation debating the fundamental question regarding the purpose of the firm and its obligations to shareholders and stakeholders.
The abstract for the paper:
With the blossoming of research on corporate social performance (CSP), the data produced by Kinder, Lydenberg, Domini (KLD) have become the standard to measure firms’ social and stakeholder actions. However, to date, only a few studies have focused on examining the data directly, and have done so largely in terms of validating the concepts and methods in the data set’s construction. The present study seeks to complement these efforts by contributing knowledge about what the KLD data report on firms’ actions toward primary and secondary stakeholders, and the dimensions of CSP that firms generally engage in, together or sequentially. With data on 3,073 firms over the period 2000-2010, results show that firms expend more resources on garnering strengths in primary stakeholder dimensions, although this trend is sharply deteriorating to the benefit of secondary stakeholders—notably the natural environment. Results also show that firms generally approach CSP with a mixed behavior, with strengths and concerns in the same dimensions, especially as it pertains to secondary stakeholders. These are the same dimensions in which firms show the longer, more intrinsic commitments, suggesting that secondary stakeholder strengths and concerns may be structural in nature. However, there is also evidence of relationships across dimensions, indicating that firms’ involvement in CSP can generate momentum. The rich implications of these findings are discussed.
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