Honoring a Prescient Look Corporate Social Responsibility

10-year Impact Award graphic

In its abstract, the paper “What We Know and Don’t Know About Corporate Social Responsibility: A Review and Research Agenda,” announced that it “offer[s] a detailed research agenda for the future, based on a multilevel perspective that aims to integrate diverse theoretical frameworks as well as develop an understanding of underlying mechanisms and microfoundations of CSR.” That eye toward “the future” seems particularly prescient, as the paper, written by Herman Aguinis and Ante Glavas and published in the Journal of Management, is one of three recipients of Sage’s fourth-annual 10-Year Impact Awards.

The 10-Year Impact Awards recognize papers published in Sage Journals from a decade ago which have been cited more than any other papers from that year. The “What We Know” paper has been cited 1,970 times.

“These awards were created as part of Sage’s larger effort to inspire and change the conversation around research impact,” said Ziyad Marar, Sage’s president of global publishing. “While a large part of this effort focuses on finding new ways to recognize impact beyond counting citations and outside of academia, the 10-year awards celebrate research with influence that has lasted longer or grown over time.” This longer time frame for a paper to prove influential is common in the social and behavioral disciplines.

Sage asked Herman Aguinis, the Avram Tucker distinguished scholar and professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business, and Ante Glavas, associate professor in the University of Vermont Grossman School of Business, to answer some questions about their paper and its lasting academic impact. (We will talk with the other two winning author teams in the next two business days).

In your estimation, what in your research – and obviously the published paper – is it that has inspired others or that they have glommed onto?

We were beyond excited to find out that our article on CSR was ranked in the top three most impactful papers in the entire Sage Journal collection! This is a big deal because it means that so many smart and talented scholars out there value the work we’re doing in this field. It’s like we hit the jackpot of good timing and feedback that helped us create something really great.

We’ve talked to quite a few people who have read our paper, and they’ve told us that our article is like a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to learn about corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Readers who are new to the areas of CSR and sustainability and or experts in the field found our paper valuable, which obviously made us extremely happy. Back when we published this paper in 2012, there was a ton of research and practice happening in the world of CSR. But with so much information out there, things were starting to get a bit scattered and hard to keep track of. That’s why we felt it was important to provide a comprehensive and integrative review of the literature.

Our paper wasn’t just an overview of what we already knew about CSR – it actually helped identify some key areas where more research was needed. One of those areas was looking at CSR in a more holistic way that included studying individuals – their attitudes and behaviors, for example. It might sound kind of ironic, but even though CSR was all about improving the well-being of humans and the planet, a lot of the research up until that point had only looked at organizations and their performance. We felt like it was important to point out that individuals were the ones driving CSR, and that they were the ones who ultimately benefited from it. After all, CSR is supposed to make people’s lives better, right?

Given the explosion in interest in corporate social responsibility, whether under that specific term or similar ones, that was occurring as this paper rolled out and which continues to expand today, where do you feel your work fits into that larger ecosystem, both academic and commercial? 

We used the term CSR in our paper because that was the term most commonly used in academic research at the time. But historically, CSR had been mostly associated with activities that were kind of on the fringes of a company’s main business – like donating to charity or doing volunteer work.

Our goal was to help change that perception and show that CSR can actually be a crucial part of a company’s core business strategy. At the time, there was a big shift happening in the world of CSR – instead of just trying to prove that it was necessary, people were starting to focus more on how to actually make it happen.

To move things forward, though, we knew it was important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We needed to provide a comprehensive overview of what we already knew about how CSR affects organizations and individuals, and also point out what we still needed to learn. In other words, we wanted to set an agenda for future research and practice.

One of the things we emphasized was that CSR needed to be good for business as well as for society and the planet. By embedding CSR in a company’s core strategy and operations, everyone wins – the company benefits, society benefits and the planet benefits. It’s a win-win situation!

What, if anything, would you have done differently in the paper (or underlying research) if you were to go back in time and do it again?

We were really lucky to have some amazing reviewers and, especially, Deborah Rupp (former Journal of Management editor) as our action editor, who helped guide us throughout the process of writing our paper. Looking back, we wouldn’t change a thing!

That said, we’ve gained a lot of knowledge and feedback since then, and one thing we think could be even better in future research is if we could bring together the worlds of academia and practice more. Sometimes there’s a bit of a divide between corporations and academics, and we think it would be really great if we could find ways to work together more effectively.

Thankfully, there have been some really positive developments in this area since we wrote our paper. Both companies and scholars are increasingly recognizing the importance of CSR – not just for financial reasons, but also because it helps fulfill human needs and values. For example, by including non-financial goals that focus on the well-being of stakeholders, companies can also promote humanistic values like caring and altruism, as well as a sense of belonging and contributing to something bigger than ourselves. It’s really exciting to see these ideas gaining traction.

How have others built on what you published? (And how have you yourself built on it?)

We’re tackling two questions at once now and building on what we’ve talked about before regarding the importance of focusing on the individual in CSR research. When we wrote our original paper on CSR, we proposed a bunch of potential future directions for the field. One idea that really seemed to resonate with a lot of emerging trends at the time was the idea of looking beyond financial incentives and focusing on things like finding meaning in your work and aligning your personal values with those of your employer – and how CSR can be a conduit for that.

To be clear, we’re not saying that financial incentives aren’t important. What we’re saying is that when people are engaged with their work and feel motivated by intrinsic factors, everyone benefits. They’re more creative, more productive, and more likely to contribute to the success of the organization.

After we wrote our original paper, we continued to explore these themes in our research. For example, we wrote an article on how to embed CSR in core business strategy and operations, as well as another article on how CSR can foster meaningfulness at work.

Could you name a paper (or other scholarly work) that has had the most, or at least a large, impact on you and your work? 

There are simply too many articles to list! In our paper, we did our best to provide a brief overview of some of the most impactful articles in the field, but we have to admit that even our efforts fell short of doing justice to all of the incredible work that has been done in this area.

Thank you so much for honoring us with this award. We are truly humbled to receive it. Contributing to the field of CSR has been an incredibly meaningful experience for both of us, and we are grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in this important area.

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