Corporate Social ActivismPeer-Reviewed Research

Cause And Effect

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  • More and more firms are taking part in social activism alongside their normal economic endeavors.  
  • It was previously believed that the best way to convince managers to engage in corporative activism was through economic language.
  • New data suggests that moral arguments can be just as powerful as a tool of persuasion. Moral language works best when it’s described in the context of a firm’s overall mission.

Consider the parade of brands that have taken up social activism in the past few years. Stella Artois’ “Buy a Lady a Drink” campaign drove awareness of the global water crisis. Apple’s Tim Cook advocates for LGBTQ rights. Airbnb launched its “We Accept” campaign just nine days after President Trump signed an order temporarily closing U.S. borders to refugees.

These companies’ plunge into social issues marks a profound change in the historic relationship of business to U.S. society. In the old days, firms tended to measure value strictly in terms of profit and loss. Even when they launched charitable projects, those projects were sold to management as good for the bottom line. Today, it’s not just money that matters, but also a company’s sense of identity.

So there’s a pressing need for research to guide managers on how to pitch activist projects in this new environment. To investigate, Rice Business professor Scott Sonenshein joined colleagues David M. Mayer and Susan J. Ashford of the University of Michigan and Madeline Ong of Hong Kong University to analyze how business managers should frame projects that don’t conform to traditional notions of profit and loss. Businesses are most willing to take a stand, they found, when managers frame a project in language the businesses understand – language, that is, that speaks to a company’s vision of the world and its own values.

To draw these conclusions, Sonenshein’s team considered years of research showing that when managers only consider the bottom line, they quickly drift from a team-oriented approach to one in which individuals behave less ethically and more selfishly. In some studies, merely looking at money increased selfish behavior. In contrast, managers who view issues through an ethical lens tend to foster cooperative and pro-social behavior among their employees – behavior that happens to be highly desirable for a high-functioning firm.

As part of their investigation, Sonenshein and his colleagues created an online survey of 141 working adults, asking them to recall a time when they spoke to a superior about a major social issue. The issues raised included everything from local charity giving to gender and racial issues in the workplace to disaster relief. There was a significant interaction, the scholars found, between the use of language invoking morals and what they called “fit.” Moral language, they discovered, had much more firepower when used in an argument that fit an organization’s values.

A second survey of 176 people involved both employees and the managers they hoped to convince. To find their participants, Sonenshein’s team tapped the World Business Alliance (a pseudonym for a real company), which works with hundreds of business organizations, including Fortune 500 companies in North America, Asia and Africa. The employees were asked how much they used moral arguments and business language to make a case to managers to participate in a social project. The managers, for their part, were asked how successful the employees were in making those pitches.

The researchers found that moral language tended to be more successful in ginning up company action when it related to a firm’s core mission. When employees made moral arguments for action on issues that didn’t fit their firm’s goals, their efforts faltered. It’s easier, for example, to get managers at a water utility to join a campaign for clean drinking water than to get similar support from managers of a paper mill or an IT company. 

In a sharp digression from traditional business culture, talking about social issues at work is no longer taboo. In fact, major companies now crave a voice in the public conversation. To turn your cause into a company talking point, however, it’s critical to use the right references to describe it. Listen closely, Sonenshein advises, to what your company tells itself and others about its values. In 21st century business, it’s no longer necessary to pitch social action as a dollar-printing machine. Even so, when pushing a particular moral stand, it’s still key to echo the values of the institution writing the checks.


Scott Sonenshein is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

For learn more, please see: Mayer, D. M., Ong, M., Sonenshein, S., & Ashford, S. J. (2019). The money or the morals? When moral language is more effective for selling social issues. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(8), 1058-1076