In this post, Owen Parker and his co-authors Ke Gong and Rachel Mui reflect on their research paper, “Reputation Belongs In More Strategic Decision Models (And Some Data To Measure It,” published in Strategic Organization.
The idea for this article came about when we considered how organization after organization responded amid the crucible of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public nature of many decisions—whether to shut down, fire or furlough employees, alter the business model, etc.—kept reminding us of the predictions of the reputation-discretion framework the first author had published with Ryan Krause and Cindy Devers in 2019. While reputation’s importance for firms long preceded COVID-19, it seemed increasingly prevalent during the pandemic as firm after firm seemed either “locked in” to certain actions or objectives by the reputations they had cultivated, or “freed up” to pursue whatever they wished—as long as their reputations weren’t sacrificed in the process.
We saw this in how Amazon, whose core stakeholders (customers and investors) cared more about profits and on-time deliveries than workers’ rights forced employees back to warehouses and clamped down on attempts to unionize. We, all of Amazon’s newly homebound customers, expected Amazon to fill the void of lockdowns, and investors expected the firm to exploit the opportunity for e-commerce amid brick-and-mortar closures. Amazon could not both maintain employees’ time-off flexibility and fulfill the profit and fulfillment objectives its reputation had mandated.
Conversely, we—the American public—might have generally paid lip service to the sad state of workers’ rights at Amazon, but didn’t (seem to) care much as long as we got our toothpaste delivered overnight and our wet wipes by Sunday. Amazon’s top managers likely felt funneled into a narrow set of decisions by the stakeholder pressure their reputation had brought about, but also probably felt largely immune to backlash in other areas as long as its reputation was vindicated.
After realizing how the pandemic was throwing into stark relief these reputation-based patterns of strategic decisions, we thought more broadly about how much strategic organization researchers could benefit from including reputation in more studies concerning strategic decision outcomes.
But then we hit a wall that stymies most reputation researchers: finding good measures for the appropriate conceptualization of reputation. In fact, reputation’s own reputation in management research meant that proselytizing the benefits of reputation’s wider use would fall flat if we did not also provide pragmatic ways to address some of its current shortcomings. So, in addition to providing guidelines for how and when scholars should consider the inclusion of reputation in their own research, we also focused on providing five sources of reputation data, explaining their utility, and illustrating how scholars could use freelancers to collect their own data, if existing data is not easily accessible or interpretable.
In addition to studies concerning strategic decision outcomes at the firm-level, we think the reputation-discretion framework and the guidelines we provide can also help explain differences in how political administrations handle crises and set legislative priorities, but this is a different level of analysis that has separate challenges. Until then, we look forward to how readers use our guidelines and the free data we provide in this essay.