The Morality of "new" CEO Activism

Branicki, Layla; Brammer, Stephen; Pullen, Alison and Rhodes, Carl (2020). The Morality of "new" CEO Activism. Journal of Business Ethics (In Press).


CEOs are attracting significant public attention due to their social and environmental activism. Positioned as an exercise 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 with broader social activism, identifying its distinctive characteristics, and empirically examining two recent ‘moral episodes’: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and 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, through establishing a typology of its forms. We conclude that while CEO activism is an important and potent new phenomenon, now is not the time to look to CEOs as moral leaders in relation to broader public morality. Instead, it is paramount to question the motives and effects of what CEOs do in the name of morality.

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