Understanding Stakeholder Reactions to Socially and Environmentally Responsible Practices

Dr. Chelsea Willness is a Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour whose research explores how stakeholders (job seekers, employees, or consumers) respond to organizations' corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives from environmental practices to community involvement.

Jolena Leader and Maya Gauthier

Dr. Chelsea Willness is a Professor in the Department of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour at the Edwards School of Business. Willness is a champion of community-engaged scholarship and teaching, has held two Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) national research grants, and has published her work in top-tier journals, written book chapters, and presented to academic and professional audiences locally, nationally and internationally. She has received several teaching awards, including the University of Saskatchewan’s Award for Distinction in Community-Engaged Teaching & Scholarship and the prestigious Master Teacher designation.

The Connecting Thread: Community-Engagement, Citizenship & Environment

Willness’ research is dynamic, engaging in diverse but related programs of research under the umbrella of social responsibility. Specifically, her research focuses on how stakeholders— job seekers, employees, or consumers—respond to organizations' corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives from environmental practices to community involvement. Willness engages in both primary empirical research and broader conceptual review work focused on individuals’ and organizations’ social and environmental practices, which is one of her longest and most well-established bodies of scholarship.

Community engagement, citizenship and environmental practices are dimensions she describes as “the connecting thread” that links her research interests. She comments: “I think what drew me then and what continues to propel me forward in this area is that I personally care about these issues.” She acknowledges, “The thread is ultimately citizenship and community engagement. I care about the environment. It’s fueled by my own interests and passions.”

According to Willness, at least some CSR practices would be discretionary for companies to engage in and it is fascinating to learn what happens when they choose to do so. She examines how stakeholders respond to various types of CSR practices: “if an organization has environmental initiatives, or community engagement initiatives, that are discretionary to their core business, but perhaps related, how do stakeholders respond?”

With her background in Industrial-Organizational (IO) Psychology, the main stakeholders that she concentrates on are job seekers and employees – a unique focus that is unlike that of consumer behavior studies, a larger body of research that centralizes the consumer and purchasing behaviour.

Unearthing Why Job Seekers Are Attracted to CSR Practices

For Willness, some of the most significant findings from her co-authored research with long-term colleague and research partner David Jones from the University of Vermont were that: “we’ve established that people tend to respond positively to socially and environmentally responsible organizational practices, but we also picked apart the reasons why. We tested this in lab experiments, in field studies with job seekers in several contexts, with different theoretical mechanisms that could explain why people would be attracted to work at a company that has good CSR practices.”

Two interesting and important studies in her work revolve around understanding this bigger puzzle—understanding the reasons “why.” Willness and Jones published a paper in the Academy of Management Journal that represented an exciting career highlight. The paper featured their research involving a series of studies testing explanatory mechanisms based on signaling theory. According to signaling theory, in conditions where people don’t have full information, they draw signals from whatever information they can get – “for job seekers, that could be anything from a company’s advertisements to interactions with its current employees, to the job interview process, to CSR practices,” Willness explained. They found evidence for three mechanisms, including the idea that “people are attracted to CSR because of the anticipated pride that they would feel working for a well-regarded employer.” CSR signals a wide variety of values and meanings to people beyond the practices themselves. You can read a short summary here.

They published another study in 2016 that replicated the mechanisms they originally examined and revealed more. Instead of a purely quantitative study, they approached it using mixed methods involving open-ended questions. “We unearthed additional mechanisms that have never been tested before. The idea that people are attracted to CSR reputation because they feel like they would fit in with the type of person who works there – a person-organization (PO) fit explanation, which is a well-established I/O Psychology and HR concept.”

When Theory Meets Practice

Willness’ research crosses the fields of psychology and business, publishing her work in respected journals representing these diverse fields. She often applies psychology frameworks and theories to better understand and explain the mechanisms associated with phenomena in a business or management context that can yield practical implications for organizations.

For instance, Willness describes how “we would often, in presentations or articles, speak about the theoretical tests and importance of the findings, but also ask, what does this mean for organizations? What should managers do? What should leaders and decision-makers do with this information? What does it mean for employees or job seekers?” Her work has resulted in important outcomes relevant to both her scholarly field and organizational practice.

“I care about organizations and their interface with society. I care about organizations treating the community and their employees well. If they do well by doing that, so much the better,” Willness shared. “Ultimately, that’s where it started and that’s what excites me about the work. I feel that if our findings can help organizations understand how to do this better or how to attract talent by being a good corporate citizen, that’s a win-win.”

New Directions in Research: Understanding Negative Stakeholder Reactions and CSR Backfire Risk

More recently, Willness has reversed the enquiry asking critical questions in relation to, “What happens when CSR practices don’t have the intended effect? Do stakeholders ever respond negatively to these kinds of practices and if so, why? How do we know whether CSR is perceived as authentic by the community who is supposed to benefit from it—has anyone asked them?”

Repeatedly hearing the cynic voice emerge prompted the need to uncover the so-called dark side of CSR. She shared, “There’s always the cynic in the audience, and I started listening to the cynic.” Only part of the story has been captured; the focus was largely on positive responses to CSR and no one was yet examining the negative responses.

“Are researchers actually looking at the whole range of possible stakeholder reactions to CSR? This was becoming more and more important to me as something to pay attention to because the landscape of CSR has changed so much,” Willness explained. For instance, the increasing emergence of greenwashing – marketing products as green when they are not – was hard to ignore, even anecdotally. She questioned whether “well-meaning organizations that have legitimate CSR practices might be met by that kind of skepticism?”

Although there has been some work done in consumer behavior on reactions to advertisements or product packaging, Willness found that “we didn’t really know much about job seekers and employees, which arguably from an organization standpoint is a high-stakes stakeholder.” She said, “It’s wide open for exploration and I think it’s important.”

Willness and Jones conducted pilot studies at a job fair to test negative or cynical reactions and they developed constructs for CSR cynicism (general cynicism towards CSR) and CSR skepticism (skepticism of specific contexts or companies). According to Willness, they found “considerable and convincing evidence that those two constructs are meaningful and distinct.”

Although her work has independently established that people react positively to CSR practices and seems to be a minority who are skeptics or cynics, she felt that there was a risk that negative responses and backfire effects are on the rise given the current context of increased greenwashing and general distrust. Moreover, with rapidly increasing public awareness and concern over climate change and climate justice issues, it’s more important than ever to understand how to influence positive action.

Her motivation was not only to have a more accurate picture of the ways stakeholders might respond, but also undercover mechanisms that explain the why and better understand risk factors that could ultimately improve the authenticity of CSR. “My concern is more about the company that’s doing it for real, for the lack of a better term, and yet that might be backfiring,” she said.

According to Willness, “by and large it’s seen as a positive thing, people want companies to engage in good practices – to be socially and environmentally responsible – that’s a good thing, but there’s something else at work here that we want to pay attention to.” Along these lines, she has published a sole author book chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Corporate Social Responsibility (“When CSR Backfires: Understanding Stakeholders’ Negative Responses to CSR”) as well as a co-authored book chapter with Dr. Ante Glavas, University of Vermont (“Employee (Dis)engagement in Corporate Social Responsibility”).

In addition to her CSR research, Dr. Willness is currently collaborating with Dr. Lee Swanson from Management and Marketing at the Edwards School of Business, and Adjunct Professor from the School of Environment and Sustainability, Dr. John Boakye-Danquah, on a project that explores the human well-being aspects of organizational and community ecosystems from a qualitative standpoint. Approaching the business-society interface using qualitative or mixed-methods is a shift from her quantitative background and is a welcomed byproduct of engaging in exciting cross-disciplinary collaborations that lend new perspectives and approaches.

Willness is also currently a co-investigator on a $2.5M SSHRC international research partnership called MECCE—monitoring and evaluating climate communication and education. MECCE is a global partnership of more than 100 agencies and leading scholars, with the goal of advancing climate literacy by improving the quality of climate change education, training, and public awareness.


To learn more about Chelsea’s work, check out her Profile Page!

Check out Three Reasons Job Seekers Prefer Sustainable Companies for more on this topic! This article was co-published with David A. Jones, Professor of Management and the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business.


Willness, C.R., Boakye-Danquah, J., & Nichols, D. (in press). How Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation can enhance community-engaged teaching and learning. Academy of Management Learning & Education.

Willness, C.R., Rupp, D., Schultz, N., & Jones, D.A. (2020). Corporate social responsibility at the individual level of analysis: Research findings that inform responsible management “in the wild”. In O. Laasch, D. Jamali, R.E. Freeman, & R. Suddaby (Eds.). Research Handbook of Responsible Management. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Glavas, A., & Willness, C.R. (2020). Employee (dis)engagement in corporate social responsibility. In D. Haski-Leventhal, L. Roza, & S. Brammer (Eds.). Employee Engagement in Corporate Social Responsibility. Sage.

Willness, C.R. (2019). When CSR backfires: Understanding stakeholders’ negative responses to corporate social responsibility. In A. McWilliams, D.E. Rupp, D.S. Siegel, G. Stahl, & D.A. Waldman, Eds. The Oxford Handbook of Corporate Social Responsibility: Psychological and Organizational Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Willness, C.R. (2019). Community-based partnership for capacity building: Stakeholder engagement through governance and leadership. In J. Allen & R. Reiter-Palmon, Eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Organizational Community Engagement and Outreach. Cambridge University Press.

Glavas, A., Willness, C.R., & Jones, D.A. (2017). Corporate social responsibility and organizational psychology: Quid pro quo. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88945-199-9. [Edited Book]

Jones, D. A., Willness, C. R., & Heller, K. W. (2016). Illuminating the signals job seekers receive from an employer’s community involvement and environmental sustainability practices: Insights into why most job seekers are attracted, others are indifferent, and a few are repelled. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, Article 426, 1-16. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00426.

Jones, D. A., Willness, C. R., & Madey, S. (2014). Why are job seekers attracted by corporate social performance? Experimental and field tests of three signal-based mechanisms. Academy of Management Journal, 57, 383-404.

Jones, D. A., & Willness, C. R. (2013). Corporate social responsibility, organizational reputation, and recruitment. In K. Y. T. Yu & D. Cable (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Recruitment (pp. 298-313). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 


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