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The University of Michigan Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) hosted a discussion on corporate activism and organizational authenticity on Friday, March 25. The meeting, geared towards PhD students and faculty members, was open to the public both in-person and virtually. This event is part of a series of seminars ICOS has been holding on Fridays throughout the Winter 2022 semester.

Sarah Soule, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, hosted the event. Soule discussed how organizational studies connects with social phenomena. She said she believes this research is important to understanding the future of corporate participation in social movements. 

“Probably the biggest takeaway for me, since it’s a very provisional finding, is that there may be a shift in how CEOs (and) corporate leaders are responding and engaging in the sociopolitical,” Soule said.

Corporate activism is when a company takes a public stance on a social or political issue. The event reviewed various companies’ responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and other protests against police brutality and racial injustice that occurred in the summer of 2020. The event focused on three studies reviewing businesses’ public responses — from letters and social media posts — to the Black Lives Matter movement and the public response to corporate activism. 

Rackham student Kyle McCullers introduced Soule, saying he was interested in her lecture in light of notable examples of activism in recent years.

“I’m really curious to see what kind of research is done in light of BLM and everything that’s happened in the past five years,” McCullers said. “I really look to Professor Soule’s work and her history at the intersection of social movements and organizations.”

The first presentation was on a survey that asked individuals to review companies’ statements about BLM. The survey asked whether participants supported corporate activism and whether they support CEOs entering into the socio-political realm, two research questions Soule was interested in investigating. The results of the survey suggested a positive public response to corporate activism, Soule said. 

“There is a lot of support for these kinds of (corporate statements), and the interviews not only suggested support but also suggested that this is expected behavior now,” Soule said. “We think we have some at least preliminary evidence from this national survey that some of this (support) depends on the type and moral authenticity of the firm.”

The second study was an experiment focused on the ways people react when organizations did not act in accordance with their advertised sociopolitical values. For instance, experiment participants were shown a company’s statement expressing support for BLM alongside a news article about the same company selling “all lives matter” merchandise. 

When looking at the results of the experiment, Soule said benefit corporations — a for-profit entity that also aims to promote the public good —  tend to be less vulnerable to criticism than other corporations.

“When these organizations engage in a hypocritical act, there’s something about benefit corporations … that tends to buffer against criticism,” Soule said. 

The third study focused on the content of the corporations’ social activism statements and how they impacted public support for and donations to BLM. Soule said the study showed customers donated more money and wrote longer letters of support for BLM when hypocritical companies publicly admitted their hypocrisy. 

“When we look at the level of support of the statements, we see that compared to no confession, … the subjects like the statements with confessions more,” Soule said. “We are beginning to dig into … similar kinds of statements to see whether these confessions are something new.”

One of the next steps for these studies is to see if these corporate statements — such as those made in Summer 2020 about BLM — are effective in the long-run, Soule said.

“One of the things we are doing with this research project is following up (with) these organizations yearly to see what’s going on with these statements, (and if) they (followed) through on their promises,” Soule said. “Are those that did follow through on their promises less performative than those who just issued a statement and didn’t make a promise? Or worse, (they) made a promise, and we can’t find any evidence that they didn’t spend the money or donate the resources they wanted to?”

ICOS Co-Director Jim Westphal said he hopes these seminars will help to bring a community of interested scholars together. 

“The goal is really to bring the University of Michigan’s larger community of scholars who have an interest in organization studies together to hear and discuss the latest research,” Westphal said. “(The seminars) highlight the University’s position as a leader of interdisciplinary research on organizations.”

Daily Staff Reporter Meghan Kunkle can be reached at