Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a legitimate responsibility to society, based on the principle that corporations should share some of the benefit that accrues from the control of vast resources. CSR goes beyond the legal, ethical, and financial obligations that create profits. In the research literature, corporate social responsibility is defined in a variety of ways, depending on the aspect of CSR being examined. An inclusive definition is that social responsibility requires the firm to take into account the interests of all stakeholders, where stakeholders are defined as everyone who affects or is affected by the firm’s decisions and actions. A firm-focused definition holds that social responsibility includes actions that further a social goal, beyond what is required by ethics, law, and profitability. A political economy–oriented definition posits that firms have a responsibility to correct market failures such as negative externalities and government failures such as limits to jurisdiction that result in worker rights violations. When implemented, altruistic CSR implies that firms provide a social good unrelated to the firms’ business that does not benefit the bottom line. Strategic CSR implies that firms are simultaneously profitable and socially responsible. To achieve this, CSR must be a core value of the firm and must be integrated into processes and products. When employed strategically, CSR can be an element of a differentiation strategy, leading to premium prices, enhanced brand and firm reputation, and supportive community relations. Corporate environmental responsibility often takes the form of overcompliance with regulation, improving the environment more than is required. A primary benefit of this is to stave off further regulation. To capture the benefits of being socially responsible, the firm must make stakeholders aware of its record. This has led to triple bottom line reporting—that is, reporting about firm performance in terms of profits, people, and the planet. Social enterprises go a step further and make social responsibility the primary goal of the organization.
Thomas Donaldson and Diana C. Robertson
Serious research into corporate ethics is nearly half a century old. Two approaches have dominated research; one is normative, the other empirical. The former, the normative approach, develops theories and norms that are prescriptive, that is, ones that are designed to guide corporate behavior. The latter, the empirical approach, investigates the character and causes of corporate behavior by examining corporate governance structures, policies, corporate relationships, and managerial behavior with the aim of explaining and predicting corporate behavior. Normative research has been led by scholars in the fields of moral philosophy, theology and legal theory. Empirical research has been led by scholars in the fields of sociology, psychology, economics, marketing, finance, and management. While utilizing distinct methods, the two approaches are symbiotic. Ethical and legal theory are irrelevant without factual context. Similarly, empirical theories are sterile unless translated into corporate guidance. The following description of the history of research in corporate ethics demonstrates that normative research methods are indispensable tools for empirical inquiry, even as empirical methods are indispensable tools for normative inquiry.