Bode, Rogan & Singh (2021). Up to No Good? Gender, Social Impact Work, and Employee Promotions

Authors:
Christiane Bode – Imperial College London, Business School
Michelle Rogan – Imperial College London, Business School
Jasjit Sing – INSEAD

Interviewers:
Pauline Asmar – HEC Paris
Chang-Wa Huynh – HEC Paris

Article link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00018392211020660


1. We would love to hear more about the origins of this project. What were your initial research questions? What were your intuitions?

Bode: We were already working on various projects looking at how employee participation in socially impactful work affects outcomes of strategic interest to the firm. So, it felt like a natural next step to shift focus from the strategic human capital benefits to the organization to the question of whether the individual employee who participates benefits in terms of their career advancement. Indirectly we were interested in just how “taken for granted” this practice (employee participation in socially impactful work) really was once digging below the surface.

In the paper we therefore ask the question of how much employees benefit, and who benefits. Based on existing work there was not an obvious answer to this question, because on one hand, firms (as in our case) often sponsor the socially impactful work and are expecting to benefit from it, but on the other hand, doing social impact work inside a corporate is still far from legitimate, and could therefore affect the way the employees who engaged in it would be viewed.

The gender dimension came slightly later when we started considering what type of employee would suffer a greater/smaller promotion penalty. Neither one of us had explicitly focused on gender before but based on the literature (set in different contexts) it is well established that gender can affect whether engaging in a given practice is viewed as legitimate for a given individual. For example, male nurses [in particular if they are well-performing in their job face similar barriers as we observed in the context of our study. This prompted us to look at gender of the participants as a moderator. Doing that in turn opened the question of how the gender of the evaluator would play into the story, so the gender dimension of the paper became a central part of the contribution.

2. Your paper involves a mix of methods, from qualitative studies to panel data and experiments. Did you meet any challenges in articulating those methods? What advice can you provide to young scholars following the same route?

Bode: For us, the qualitative data was the starting point to understanding the phenomenon, but it was never intended to be a central part of the analyses. I don’t think I have ever worked on a project without at least informally speaking to people “on the ground”. The archival panel data initially formed the main empirical part of the paper. After the first submission the reviewers unanimously suggested we add an experiment to the paper to allow us to test the proposed mechanisms and to provide evidence that our effects would be observed outside the one firm.

For the three of us, running experiments has not been a primary approach in much of our prior work and so we had to get up to speed quickly what the best practices were, in particular in terms of design and implementation. Thankfully friends and colleagues were generous in guiding us into the right direction, but this definitely added a lot of time to the review process. I am glad we got pushed into this direction though not only because it made the paper stronger but also because it forced me to engage with a completely new method and thus hopefully opened doors for future work.

My advice to a young scholar would be not to start a project that relies on three different methods – both because it’s hard to do justice to that many studies in one manuscript (ASQ being an outlier in not having a strict page count at least compared to strategy-focused outlets) and because at least I find that developing expertise in more than one method requires significant investment. I do think using interviews to help get a grounding in the phenomenon is really helpful but that does not necessarily require a full qualitative analysis. It has also been my experience that reviewers and (hopefully) readers react positively to this type of mixed method “light” approach because illustrative quotes help bring to live what might be going on in the quantitative data but it does not require you to be an expert in qualitative analysis.

3. Your studies deeply involve several field contexts. How did you manage to engage with those organizations? What are the challenges associated when working with companies.

Bode: Our paper is based on archival data from one specific firm (in addition to the experiment which involved subjects from multiple firms and industries). We gained access to the firm as part of my dissertation work and it certainly was not a quick process. In fact, it took almost two years from when we first made contact to getting permission to use the data. I think this is a very common challenge and while it is great to have access to proprietary firm data and allows for unique insights, it probably makes sense to approach multiple organizations at the same time because various challenges can delay or prevent the project from going ahead.

When first approaching this firm, I was also in conversation with others and as time ticked away I was getting very worried I might never finish my dissertation. Thankfully, after many formal and informal conversations, one team in the organization started being interested in some of the question(s) we were proposing to study and all of a sudden the wheels got into motion. We did have to agree not to use the name of the organization in any of our studies and of course our dataset could not include any employee-identifying information. The need to work with the constantly evolving legal requirements around data use is probably an important aspect to keep in mind when starting a collaboration with an organization.

4. There has been recently a surge of works studying how organizational members receive and contribute to their organization’s CSR. Where do you see this research topic going in the future? What are the most pressing questions to address? Do you the questions going micro and/or macro?

Bode: In the strategy literature, which is where I come from, the starting point for much of this inquiry has been to flesh out when and why CSR is positively associated with firm performance. Accordingly, there has then been work looking at the different stakeholder group including employees and their role in this overarching relationship. There is certainly much more work to be done in this direction both considering the mechanisms (why do employees contribute, why do employees perceive firms positively/negatively that engage in CSR and its dark twins CSiR/greenwashing) and identifying the boundary conditions (both at the employee level and the firm/industry level).

The cost of running experiments has decreased and we increasingly have access to large scale employee-level data for example through Glassdoor or similar sites although of course restrictions around scraping have come into place. In other words, there is much room and scope for micro-level analyses as well as macro-level analyses.

I also think we may slowly be moving beyond a focus on CSR as an ad hoc initiative or bundle of ad hoc initiatives towards a scenario where the focus is on corporate sustainability which suggests firm need to manage opportunities and risks derived from economic, environmental, social and governance issues in a more integrated manner. This might shift inquiry away from CSR towards corporate purpose or culture more broadly and if such societal engagement becomes “core” work, it might change how organizational members react. At the same time studying the role of employees in this shift would be fascinating.

I also think there is a huge gap in the literature (again, coming from a strategy lens at least) in considering societal outcomes as the end outcome rather than the explanatory variable. To me, addressing the latter is probably the most pressing future direction of inquiry.

5. How do managerial audiences react to your findings? How can they operationalize the work they need to undertake on their own beliefs? What are the aspects they should pay attention to when managing organizational members’ beliefs? Do you see more academic work extending this line of thought?

Bode: The managers I have been in contact with are often motivated to find evidence regarding how CSR may (positively) affect employees, in particular if they are developing an internal case for why their firm should implement a given CSR initiative. As such, my experience has been that they are very keen to understand the exact parameters that are associate with success [e.g. who should take part in the work, what type of CSR work should the firm do etc.].

The audiences we have addressed are often personally already bought into the idea and they are well aware that they need to manage general resistance inside the organization. The belief that CSR does not need to extend beyond window-dressing seems to be deep-rooted in some organizations/organizational members. Thus, often managers are interested in how they can use our research findings to make a better business case.

Understanding how a CSR program might interact with biases around gender or similar is more complex and not something that the audiences we have interacted with have taken into account as far as I can tell. It’s also not something that is in the hands of a single manager to change but instead is a structural issue that may need to be addressed jointly by multiple units of the firm including top management and HR. As such, our study might just add additional impetus for organizations to wrestle with the biases/beliefs of their members more broadly. I certainly think more work could be done into this direction. If gender plays such a large role in determining how socially impactful work affects promotions, the same (and other) biases likely also affect outcomes in different contexts.

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