– Gain a broad understanding of Stakeholder Theory and how some practical business implications
Stakeholder theory, which has been described by Edward Freeman and others, is the mirror image of corporate social responsibility. Instead of starting with a business and looking out into the world to see what ethical obligations are there, stakeholder theory starts in the world. It lists and describes those individuals and groups who will be affected by (or affect) the company’s actions and asks, “What are their legitimate claims on the business?” “What rights do they have with respect to the company’s actions?” and “What kind of responsibilities and obligations can they justifiably impose on a particular business?” In a single sentence, stakeholder theory affirms that those whose lives are touched by a corporation hold a right and obligation to participate in directing it.
As a simple example, when a factory produces industrial waste, a CSR perspective attaches a responsibility directly to factory owners to dispose of the waste safely. By contrast, a stakeholder theorist begins with those living in the surrounding community who may find their environment poisoned, and begins to talk about business ethics by insisting that they have a right to clean air and water. Therefore, they’re stakeholders in the company and their voices must contribute to corporate decisions. It’s true that they may own no stock, but they have a moral claim to participate in the decision-making process. This is a very important point. At least in theoretical form, those affected by a company’s actions actually become something like shareholders and owners. Because they’re touched by a company’s actions, they have a right to participate in managing it.
Who are the stakeholders surrounding companies? The answer depends on the particular business, but the list can be quite extensive. If the enterprise produces chemicals for industrial use and is located in a small Massachusetts town, the stakeholders include:
-Company owners, whether a private individual or shareholders
-Customers and potential customers of the company
-Suppliers and potential suppliers to the company
-Everyone living in the town who may be affected by contamination from workplace operations
-Creditors whose money or loaned goods are mixed into the company’s actions
-Government entities involved in regulation and taxation
-Local businesses that cater to company employees (restaurants where workers have lunch, grocery stores where employee families shop, and similar)
-Other companies in the same line of work competing for market share
-Other companies that may find themselves subjected to new and potentially burdensome regulations because of contamination at that one Massachusetts plant
The first five on the list—shareholders, workers, customers, suppliers, and community—may be cited as the five cardinal stakeholders.
The outer limits of stakeholding are blurry. In an abstract sense, it’s probably true that everyone in the world counts as a stakeholder of any serious factory insofar as we all breathe the same air and because the global economy is so tightly linked that decisions taken in a boardroom in a small town on the East Coast can end up costing someone in India her job and the effects keep rippling out from there.
In practical terms, however, a strict stakeholder theory—one insistently bestowing the power to make ethical claims on anyone affected by a company’s action—would be inoperable. There’d be no end to simply figuring out whose rights needed to be accounted for. Realistically, the stakeholders surrounding a business should be defined as those tangibly affected by the company’s action. There ought to be an unbroken line that you can follow from a corporate decision to an individual’s life.
Once a discrete set of stakeholders surrounding an enterprise has been located, stakeholder ethics may begin. The purpose of the firm, underneath this theory, is to maximize profit on a collective bottom line, with profit defined not as money but as human welfare. The collective bottom line is the summed effect of a company’s actions on all stakeholders. Company managers, that means, are primarily charged not with representing the interests of shareholders (the owners of the company) but with the more social task of coordinating the interests of all stakeholders, balancing them in the case of conflict and maximizing the sum of benefits over the medium and long term. Corporate directors, in other words, spend part of the day just as directors always have: explaining to board members and shareholders how it is that the current plans will boost profits. They spend other parts of the day, however, talking with other stakeholders about their interests: they ask for input from local environmentalists about how pollution could be limited, they seek advice from consumers about how product safety could be improved and so on. At every turn, stakeholders are treated (to some extent) like shareholders, as people whose interests need to be served and whose voices carry real force.
In many cases transparency is an important value for those promoting stakeholder ethics. The reasoning is simple: if you’re going to let every stakeholder actively participate in a corporation’s decision making, then those stakeholders need to have a good idea about what’s going on. In the case of W. R. Grace, for example, it’s important to see that a stakeholder theory would not necessarily and immediately have acted to prohibit the dumping of toxins into the soil. Instead, the theory demands that all those who may be affected know what’s being dumped, what the risks are to people and the environment, and what the costs are of taking the steps necessary to dispose of the chemical runoff more permanently and safely.
As already noted, we know now what W. R. Grace should have done under most every ethical theory. At the time, however, stakeholders fully informed of the situation may have been less sure because it wasn’t so clear that the runoff would cause so many problems (or any problems at all). Given that, owners may have favored dumping because that increases profits. Next, what about workers in town? It’s important to keep in mind that the safe removal of the waste may have lowered company profits and potentially caused some layoffs or delayed wage hikes. As stakeholders, they may have been willing to agree to the dumping too. The same goes for community politicians who perhaps would see increased tax revenue as a positive effect of high corporate profits.
What’s certain is that stakeholder theory obligates corporate directors to appeal to all sides and balance everyone’s interests and welfare in the name of maximizing benefits across the spectrum of those whose lives are touched by the business.