This post is part of an invited series, in an effort to share ethics-related opportunities, news, and projects lead by AOM Divisions, Committees, and members.
Sins of the Fathers:
Organizations and Historic Responsibility
by Robert A. Phillips, Judith Schrempf-Stirling and Christian Stutz
What are the responsibilities of current managers and the organizations they lead for the actions of long ago predecessors? When historians found that forebears of the U.S. bank Wachovia owned slaves, Ken Thompson, chairman and chief executive officer in 2005, publicly apologized stating, “On behalf of Wachovia Corporation, I apologize to all Americans, and especially to African-Americans and people of African descent“. Wachovia has not been the only company – or even the only bank – to publicly apologize for its history. That same year, J.P. Morgan Chase issued an apology and announced it would provide a $5 million scholarship fund for its role in owning slaves who were used as loan collateral.
In 2011, German fashion company Hugo Boss apologized for its use and harsh treatment of forced labourers during World War II. The company’s public statement stressed “its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule.” Nor is this limited to for profit corporations. In 2017, Yale announced it would rename Calhoun College due to John C. Calhoun’s active support of slavery. While history is in the past, it remains very much in the present. Examples like these raise fundamental questions about the historical actions of organizations and the related responsibility in the present.
We share our history in the form of stories and narratives when we talk about the foundation, origins, developments, changes, and goals of our organizations. Those stories form and express identity and legitimize current activities. Our stories co-create our collective organizational memory. However, stories and narratives are substantially subjective. Due to their own past and experiences and current position, individuals will have different takes on historical and current events – that is, history can be contested. Even when we experience the same event, this does not mean that we think or talk about it in the same way. Different narratives can co-exist about the very same historical events. History, as such, can be a powerful tool. These narratives can be, and often are, used strategically. Non-governmental organizations or activists might (mis-)use history for moralizing purposes to receive greater public attention and support. Corporations may manipulate how the public views past events by sharing only part of the story or discrediting other narratives. Often these organizations are also the stewards of the very documents and artefacts needed to inform our readings of history. Of course, some level of interpretation and selectivity is unavoidable. Examining an organization’s past, how that past is interpreted in the present, and how these sometimes contested interpretations influence today’s managers and organizational stakeholders present fascinating scholarly possibilities.
To provoke and promote deeper examination, we have launched a call for papers for a special issue in Journal of Business Ethics on Historic Corporate Responsibility in which we encourage scholars to consider some of the following pressing questions in relation to organizations and their histories:
- Can organizations be responsible for the actions of prior generations of leaders and members?
- What, if anything, can current leaders do to recognize, mitigate or limit responsibility today for past actions?
- What can leaders today do to affect how they and their organizations are seen in the future? What role can concerns for legacy have in influencing current decisions?
- What, if any, effect do attempts at re-organization (e.g., acquisition, mergers, bankruptcy, re-branding, changes in leadership, etc.) have on responsibility?
- Is there a limit to how far back the claims of historic responsibility can go?
- What would adequate restitution look like? To whom and in what form and magnitude? Can an organization be forgiven? Can an organization apologize and who can accept it?
- What are the boundaries of past and current organizations? Are there affiliational responsibilities from the past?
- Who can legitimately speak for the past?
- What is the role of forgetting and selective memory?
- What, if any, duty do organizations have to be transparent about their past?
- Should stigma attach to individuals who were participants in past transgressions? How do we define participants?
Many of our colleagues have been hard at work for many decades within the Academy of Management, particularly within the Management History Division. Tremendous potential remains, however, for exploring how the past continues to affect the sorts of questions that have historically (ahem) been considered part of other domains of the Academy.