The Morality of “new” CEO Activism

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Journal Article
Journal of Business Ethics, 2021, 170, (2), pp. 269-285
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© 2020, Springer Nature B.V. CEOs’ social and environmental activism attracts significant public and research interest. Positioned as an expression of personal morality, such activism is potentially highly influential because of CEOs’ public visibility and associated positional and resource-based power. This paper questions the assumption that CEO activism can only be explained in relation to individual moral action, and illuminates its wider social implications. We critically evaluate the recent upsurge in CEO activism by juxtaposing it against broader social activism, identifying its distinctive characteristics, and empirically examining two recent ‘moral episodes’: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the Fetal Heartbeat Acts (FHAs). Our analysis demonstrates that CEO activism is more heterogeneous than research to date has shown. Building on this analysis, a refined understanding of the character and morality of CEO activism is developed by establishing a typology of its forms. We conclude that while CEO activism is an important and potent new phenomenon, it may not be universally appropriate to regard CEOs as moral leaders. Instead, it is paramount to question the motives and effects of what CEOs do in the name of morality.
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