The problem with CSR: why companies need to listen to their activist employees

Image by GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg
By Luda Svystunova and Verena Girschik

The current pandemic has exposed blatant social injustices and inequalities around the world, prompting businesses to face their societal impact. Before the crisis, however, a rising wave of employee activism had already started to call into question the extent to which companies had managed to meet their moral obligations. Employees at Wayfair, Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Amazon have protested against their employers’ stance on issues ranging from climate change to migration, pushing them to deliver on public commitments or refusing to contribute to morally dubious projects, such as Amazon’s facial recognition software that had potential to contribute to racial discrimination.

As the crisis has provided ample opportunities to reflect on and reconsider the role of business in society, we believe that this is the time to learn from employee activism – and to learn to embrace it as a force for change.

The problem with CSR

Virtually all companies today pursue a CSR agenda, strengthened by the global agreement around Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the growing power of corporate sustainability rankings, standardization of sustainability reporting and the proliferation of consultancies who offer support to companies pursuing a shared value approach to social responsibility. Aligning business and societal value creation, such approaches promise win-win solutions in addressing social ills. Yet it is the very promise of win-win solutions that undermines critical engagement with companies’ roles in creating or reproducing social ills.

First, CSR has become the corporate worlds’ dominant paradigm for change that is positive and comfortable. If CSR managers want to avoid eyerolls, especially from top managers and shareholders, they need to speak the language of profit and present a measurable business case for addressing social ills. By enabling companies to do well by doing and looking good, however, CSR may also cultivate complacency. This does not mean that CSR has failed to encourage companies to embrace more responsible business conduct. But it is a potent substitute for engaging with the many uncomfortable social problems as to which companies have hitherto failed to do the right thing.

Second, the triumph of CSR is symptomatic of and reproduces social inequalities. CSR is driven by privileged employees and managers often based in the corporate headquarters – members of the organizational elites. The voices of others in the company, as well as the people affected by corporate activities, are seldomly included. Indeed, Kaplan (2020) suggests that the business case alienates employees and does not deliver on promises to stakeholders. Misguided CSR initiatives can actually make things worse for those they aim to help. By limiting attention to win-win solutions, CSR has failed to pay attention to those who lose.

How can employee activism help?

Activist employees are those employees that care about and actively promote social justice in their company. With this, we call upon companies to stop viewing employee activists as antagonists or nuisance and instead invite activism in order to face problems head on. Specifically, we suggest that companies should consider the following:

1 ) Accept activist employees rather than “handle” their dissent.

Activist employees bring to the front the less comfortable social problems that a company creates, reproduces, or in other ways is complicit in. Commonly, companies manage dissent by firing those employees who speak out against corporate misdeeds. Activist employees’ voices may be uncomfortable, but if fired, they will certainly still be heard – if not by management, then certainly by the public.

2 ) Listen to dissenting voices and engage with uncomfortable truths.

Employee activists can help by shedding light onto just such areas where businesses may have missed the mark. Representing social movements inside the company, they generate awareness of problems it may have missed or not taken seriously and even contribute to solutions. Most importantly, the break with the complacency of corporate CSR practice and drive the more radical change that is so badly needed.

3 ) Confront privilege and listen to employee activists

Companies should be mindful of who gets to have a say in the issues that matter. It is easy to overlook issues voiced by activists on the ground – across the operations and especially in distant local offices. Yet they are often the ones with a first-hand understanding of social ills as well as externalities produced by the company.   

4 ) Tackle social injustices within.

Not all employee activism is driven by personal values and compassion for others: alongside staff walkouts for greener business at Google and Amazon, Google’s temporary workers and Amazon’s warehouse employees fight for fair labour conditions. In tackling social ills, companies should never overlook the struggles of their own employees.

CSR is still needed, but we can do even better. What we are proposing is inconvenient, disturbing, and uncomfortable, but it’s time for companies to get things right.


Our critique of CSR is inspired by the following contributions:

de Bakker, F. G., Matten, D., Spence, L. J., & Wickert, C. (2020). The elephant in the room: The nascent research agenda on corporations, social responsibility, and capitalismBusiness & Society, in press.

Feix, A., & Philippe, D. (2020). Unpacking the narrative decontestation of CSR: Aspiration for change or defense of the status quo?Business & Society59(1), 129-174.

Kaplan, S. (2020). Beyond the business case for social responsibilityAcademy of Management Discoveries, 6(1), 1-4. 

Khan, F. R., Munir, K. A., & Willmott, H. (2007). A dark side of institutional entrepreneurship: Soccer balls, child labour and postcolonial impoverishmentOrganization studies28(7), 1055-1077.

Schneider, A. (2019). Bound to Fail? Exploring the Systemic Pathologies of CSR and Their Implications for CSR Research. Business & Society, in press.


About the Authors

Luda Svystunova is a Lecturer in International Management at the Institute for International Management, Loughborough University London. Luda’s research examines multinational firms’ interactions with their non-market context through corporate social responsibility and corporate political activity, particularly in non-Western settings. She is also interested in the role individuals within and outside companies play in these interactions. Luda’s Twitter: @LudaSV

Verena Girschik is Assistant Professor of CSR, Communication, and Organization at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, Copenhagen Business School. Verena’s research focuses on the responsibilities of companies in the contexts of complex societal problems and humanitarian crises. Interested in relations between companies, governments, NGOs, and other societal actors, her research explores how companies negotiate their roles and responsibilities, how they perform them, and to what consequences. Verena’s Twitter: @verenaCPH


Image by GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg

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