Carlos & Lewis (2017). Strategic Silence: Withholding Certification Status as a Hypocrisy Avoidance Tactic

Authors:

Chad Carlos – Brigham Young University

Ben Lewis – Brigham Young University

Interviewers:

Ke Cao – University of Alberta

Bjoern Mitzinneck – Cornell University

Article link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0001839217695089

Question 1. Idea and Research Process
Congratulations on publishing your intriguing paper on “strategic silence” in ASQ. We greatly enjoyed reading your work. In your paper you show that firms may actually decide to withhold information on certifications they obtained. How did you first conceive of this counterintuitive idea? In your paper, you explain that this information withholding is due to firms seeking to avoid the risk of being perceived as hypocritical. Could you let us in on the genesis and research process behind this interesting project?

Chad: The initial idea for this project came when I was in Pam Tolbert’s organization theory seminar. Another student was doing research on certifications and I came across some data on ecotourism certifications. As I looked into the data, I was intrigued to find that many of the hotels listed in the ecotourism certification directory did not mention this distinction on their websites, or other marketing material. Given the prevailing thought that the primary purpose of obtaining a certification is to use it as a signal to inform audiences about some level of quality or achievement that is otherwise hard to observe, I was fascinated as to why many firms were not publicizing this information. I was especially curious given that obtaining this certification was very costly and required extensive implementation of sustainable practices. So, the idea that these organizations were actually implementing socially valued practices, but not signaling their adoption seemed to be the very opposite of the standard decoupling story that I had been studying in this seminar. I wrote up a research proposal for the seminar, but as a graduate student I had limited time and resources to obtain enough data to convincingly investigate this phenomenon. Several years later, Ben and I were talking about the project and he mentioned that he knew of another context where we could look at this issue. We started to see similar patterns in this new dataset and knew we were on to something.

Ben: I remember the day when we decided to start this project. I had previously been aware of Chad’s initial exploration into the ecotourism industry and remember that he had run into some issues with the data. As he discussed the idea and his desire to somehow get around those obstacles, it dawned on me that I might have a solution. I had been collecting data on companies listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). Unlike companies in the ecotourism sector, these corporations were large public companies that communicated their sustainability efforts through many different channels and were heavily scrutinized by shareholders and stakeholders alike. As we discussed the initial idea and the data that I had been collecting, we realized that many of the obstacles that Chad had faced within the ecotourism industry could be overcome by switching the context. To me, this experience is a prime example of how informal discussions amongst colleagues can lead to fortuitous outcomes.

Question 2. Theoretical Framing
To motivate your research and theorize your hypotheses, you primarily draw on impression management theory. You later discuss the important implications of your work also for institutional theory and non-market strategy. Could you tell us a little bit more about the framing process and how you decided how best to approach this phenomenon?

Chad: One of the most intriguing pieces of the paper has always been the counterintuitive findings related to prevailing thought in institutional theory. So, from the start there was a focus around revisiting long held assumptions about decoupling and explaining this new process of reverse decoupling that we had observed. However, over time as we presented the paper and obtained feedback from reviewers, we received very constructive suggestions that helped us to engage more deeply with impression management theory and nonmarket strategy more generally.

Ben: Greenwashing, the decoupling of what we say and what we do within an environmental context, had been (and continues to be) a hot topic of research among sustainability scholars. What we were observing, however, appeared to be the opposite; companies structurally adopting practices and structures that were certified but not signaled as one might expect. Given the phenomenon at hand, the institutional literature on decoupling seemed like a logical framing for our initial idea. However, as Chad mentioned, we felt that there was an important strategic angle to the idea of remaining strategically silent about one’s environmental recognitions, and therefore decided to draw upon the impression management literature as well.

Question 3. Methods
Your paper follows a rigorous quantitative approach. However, we noticed that you also conducted some informal interviews with, for example RobecoSAM, the evaluator behind the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI). What role did this play in the research process? Any recommendations for PhD students as they approach their research projects?

Ben: As macro scholars, one of the challenges of studying organizational issues is the difficulty or inability to observe the motivations and mechanisms of the individuals that drive the outcomes that we study. As doctoral students at Cornell, both Chad and I were taught by many wonderful mentors that qualitative evidence collected through informal interviews could nevertheless help to mitigate this concern.

With this particular project, we had a hunch based on prior research that hypocrisy avoidance was a primary factor in explaining why firms would remain silent about their DJSI membership. To understand whether our intuition was correct, we spoke with several executives of large public corporations across multiple industries to understand how large companies view certifications like the DJSI and how they might use them strategically to signal or silence their past sustainability efforts. To gain access to these individuals, we relied primarily on alumni networks from both our current (BYU) and doctoral institutions (Cornell).

We also wanted to find actual statements made by executives in news articles and sustainability reports to further bolster our arguments. While these interviews and statements from secondary sources do not provide definitive evidence of hypocrisy avoidance, they nevertheless are consistent with the findings from our analyses and provide added support for our claims.

In general, we would highly recommend that doctoral students reach out to contacts within the context of their study. Even if data that is analyzed is primarily quantitative, we believe that the understanding of possible motivations and mechanisms that underlie many organizational outcomes becomes much more apparent as researchers converse with relevant decision makers.

Chad: I echo Ben’s suggestions about the value of conducting some qualitative work even if you are primarily using quantitative methods. Talking to people in the field and gaining insights into what is actually happening in the real world is critical. As I reflect on all of the projects I have worked on, I think one common thread is that in every case the research question and motivation for those studies have been highly influenced by something I observed, or learned from interviewing and observing actors in the field.

Question 4. Future Research
You hinted at a number of interesting future directions. For example, whether the mechanisms you theorized might apply in other less transparent ranking contexts or voluntary initiatives, and whether and how firms use particular communication strategies towards particular stakeholders. Could you tell us about potential follow-up projects to look forward to reading soon or elaborate a bit on further research needs you see?

Ben: As noted in the paper, we believe there are a number of interesting avenues of inquiry that follow from this project, particularly within the area of impression management and sustainability communication. One that we’ve discussed in detail and are currently pursuing is in the area of competing certifications (i.e. rankings, ratings, etc.) While our study focused on one certifying agency (i.e. the Dow Jones Sustainability Index), we believe there are interesting questions and puzzles to explore regarding how companies manage competing certifications, and how those dynamics impact an organization’s impression management strategies.

Chad: More broadly, we see opportunities to explore how organizations communicate about their actions that would typically be viewed as positive achievements as well as those that could be viewed as failures, or controversial in some way. We’re just starting to see some new work that challenges long held assumptions regarding concepts like decoupling and ceremonial adoption. We address this in the paper, but are excited about opportunities to further this discussion. We also see openings to build on growing work on nonmarket strategy related to how organizations manage varying stakeholder preferences and pressures. These are all themes that come up in current projects that Ben and I are working on together and with other colleagues.

Question 5. Sustainability Scholarship
You mention in your short bios at the end of the paper that you are interested in sustainability research (so are we). We also noticed that you presented your work in venues like the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability (ARCS) annual conference. There seems to be a very committed and growing scholarly community on sustainability, yet sustainability focused papers in top journals of our field do not seem to grow quite as quickly in number or are often framed primarily as particular instances of a more general theoretical phenomenon rather than foregrounding sustainability implications. Any thoughts or lessons learned you would like to share with aspiring sustainability scholars as they pursue their research and seek to publish it?

Ben: Early in my doctoral studies, it seemed as if the general perception within academia was that sustainability focused research and research that was empirically rigorous and theoretically interesting were mutually exclusive. As one of my colleagues once mentioned, many CSR or sustainability studies appeared to be “high on passion” but “low on rigor.” Whether or not that perception was true, I believe that it has now shifted. Many insightful and important studies within the context of sustainability have been published in top journals in the past five years, studies that are both empirically rigorous and theoretically interesting. I personally do not see that trend diminishing anytime soon, especially given the increased attention given to sustainability issues such as climate change, renewable energy, etc.

In general, I would recommend that all scholars interested in sustainability continue to pursue their passions and interests. The challenge of finding the right theoretical framing or hook will always be present, but the ability to preserve and overcome that challenge is likely to be directly correlated with the researcher’s personal motivation and drive.

Despite the fact that many of my projects seem to be multi-year investments, I personally find a lot of motivation in pursuing topics that I not only find interesting but that I believe are important from a societal perspective. Knowing that my research contributes to the ongoing conversation on sustainability within the field of management, and perhaps could have an influence on public policy, is what keeps me going in the day-to-day grind.

Question 6. Did we miss anything? A question you would have liked to answer?

Chad: I just wanted to give some encouragement to doctoral students and junior scholars who may be frustrated with some of the challenges that arise in research. As I mentioned, this project started in the first year of the doctoral program and was not published until years after I graduated. Even though I was always excited about the idea, there were many starts and stops to this project and frustrations along the way. Staying persistent was critical, but even more important was having a great co-author. I’ve learned how important it is to work with someone who provides complimentary skills and how their support throughout the process not only helps to improve the quality of the research, but also makes it more enjoyable as you experience the highs and lows together.

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