Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting as Substantive and Symbolic Behavior: A Multilevel Theoretical Analysis

Date01 June 2016
AuthorKareem M. Shabana,Elizabeth C. Ravlin
Published date01 June 2016
Corporate Social
Responsibility Reporting as
Substantive and Symbolic
Behavior: A Multilevel
Theoretical Analysis
This article describes a multilevel theoretical framework that
examines the multiple causes of corporate social responsibil-
ity (CSR) reporting in the social environment of business. We
argue that substantive and/or symbolic reporting flows from
individual-, aggregate-, organizational-, and institution-level
phenomena, and is thus a complex outcome of CSR and cor-
porate social performance (CSP). Theoretical lenses range
from reinforcement theory at the microlevel to legitimacy
and stakeholder theories at the macrolevel, and include a
discussion of the emergence of lower-level CSR-relevant
characteristics to higher level constructs. Our goal is to clar-
ify how this behavior develops from microlevel, mesolevel,
and macrolevel processes with a view toward assisting cor-
porations to better enact CSR reporting, and their stakehold-
ers to effectively promote substantive reporting behavior.
Kareem M. Shabana is an Associate Professor of Management at the Department of Manage-
ment and Organization, School of Business, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain,
CT. E-mail: Elizabeth C. Ravlin is an Associate Professor of Management
at the Department of Management, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Caro-
lina, Columbia, SC. E-mail:
C2016 Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.,
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.
Business and Society Review 121:2 297–327
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting has gained
widespread acceptance, to the extent that it is considered
the de facto law for business” (KPMG International Coop-
erative 2011). Research on CSR reporting (e.g., Archel et al. 2009;
Belal and Roberts 2010; Criado-Jim
enez et al. 2008; Elijido-Ten
et al. 2010; Mahadeo et al. 2011; Orij 2010; Tilling and Tilt 2010;
van der Laan Smith et al. 2010) examines reporting behavior using
three fundamental perspectives: legitimacy theory (Dowling and
Pfeffer 1975; Preston and Post 1975; Suchman 1995), stakeholder
theory (Freeman 1984; Freeman, Harrison, Wicks, Parmar and de
Colle, 2010), and the corporate communication perspective (van
Riel and Fombrun 2007). These perspectives generally suggest that
a corporation participates in CSR reporting to strengthen its legiti-
macy, enhance its reputation, and build a competitive advantage
(Hooghiemstra 2000).
A corporation’s ability to achieve these objectives is contingent
on the extent to which its stakeholders favorably perceive the
disclosed information about its corporate social performance
(CSP). Accordingly, one might expect that only corporations with
favorable CSP would publish CSR reports; however, corporations
with favorable or unfavorable CSP engage in reporting (Dawkins
and Fraas 2011). Lindblom (2010) explains CSR reporting by
corporations with unfavorable CSP as attempts to manipulate
stakeholder perceptions. This explanation has raised concerns
about a corporation’s creating positive perceptions about their
poor performance (Lindblom 2010)—a practice that has come to
be known as “greenwashing” (Delmas and Burbano 2011, pp.
While the explanation that corporations with favorable CSP dis-
close credible information while those with unfavorable CSP engage
in greenwashing sheds some light on the factors affecting CSR
reporting, little attention has been given to examining the proc-
esses underlying these behaviors. A more careful investigation of
these processes would provide a deeper understanding of the
reporting behavior, especially of the drivers of both credible CSR
reporting and greenwashing.
To fill this gap, we propose a multilevel analytic framework for
CSR reporting that depicts it as an outcome of individual-, team/
unit-, organizational-, and institutional-level processes. The

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