September 18, 2006
Surveys on Social Responsibility
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

In my research on the issue of corporate social responsibility I have run across many studies that all have the same theme: whenever they are surveyed people—from consumers to business students to shareholders—not only express a desire for corporations to engage in socially responsible behavior, but also seem to believe that engaging in such behavior has a positive impact on the corporation’s bottom-line.  The studies or surveys are then of course used to support the proposition that corporations should engage in socially responsible behavior.  The studies and surveys I believe are also used to support the notion that—at the very least—there will be some negative reputational impact on corporations who fail to engage in such behavior.  While I certainly like the results of the study, I always find myself a bit skeptical about their validity as well as their import.

First, I am ever mindful of the possibility that when surveyed people tend to respond as they believe they should respond.  Thus, one can argue that it is relatively unremarkable that surveys in the post-Enron era would reveal a public preference for corporations to engage in socially responsible behavior.  I think there are plenty of people who agree with the sentiment, but many more who believe that they should agree with the sentiment. For example, who’s going to say that they DON’T believe that a corporation should be environmentally friendly?  In this regard, I am not sure that the surveys actually capture people’s genuine belief.

Second, I think it is possible that the surveys and studies are capturing people’s aspirations for corporations rather than their expectations regarding actual corporate behavior.  While this may have some normative implications (i.e. suggesting that many people believe that corporations OUGHT to be more socially responsible), it may not have any behavioral implications.  As a result, it may not be proper to use the surveys as an indication of the type of conduct in which people expect their corporations to engage.  Or to put it differently, it may not be appropriate to use the surveys as support for the proposition that people will impose costs on corporations that fail to engage in socially responsible behavior.  Part of the reason why this may be true is that the surveys appear to be asking the wrong question.  Indeed, surveys appear to assess the extent to which the public desires corporations to engage in certain kinds of conduct.  The better question is whether and to what extent the public will impose costs on corporations who fail to engage in that behavior.  I have a feeling that there may be different outcomes if this latter question is asked.   

Finally, I think many of the surveys do not probe the deeper question—to what extent do people believe that corporations should sacrifice profits (even short-term profits) do engage in socially responsible behavior?  Instead, my assessment of the surveys is that they presuppose either that corporations can pursue profits and these other aims without any tension or that pursuit of these other aims inevitably will lead to enhancing profits.  Again, I must say that framed in this way, the survey responses appear relatively unremarkable.  Who’s going to say that a corporation should NOT be environmentally friendly when it is posed as a costless and even beneficial proposition?  It seems a different matter altogether when there are trade-offs. 

Thus, I remain skeptical both of the data and how it is being used. 

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