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The Social Construction of Organizational Misconduct: A Systemic View



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Pichler, Rasmus 


The question of how and why organizations engage in misconduct has long fascinated management scholars and practitioners (Palmer, Smith-Crowe, & Greenwood, 2016a; Treviño, Weaver, & Reynolds, 2006; Vaughan, 1999). Hardly a day goes by without newspapers, NGOs, or regulators calling out organizations and their leaders for behaviors – such as environmental violations, fraud, human rights violations, bribery, and others – that cause harm and break the law or violate ethical standards. In this dissertation, I explore how such organizational misconduct is socially constructed and how this social construction affects organizations and their leaders.

Conceptualizing organizational misconduct as socially constructed means that misconduct is seen as behavior in or by an organization that actors outside the organization – such as government agencies, social movements, or media outlets – label as violating norms (Greve, Palmer, & Pozner, 2010; Waegel, Ermann, & Horowitz, 1981). The notion of misconduct as being socially constructed in this manner is well-established in neighboring disciplines such as sociology (Grattet, 2011), but its implications have been neglected by management scholars (Greve et al., 2010). I study these implications and develop them into a systemic view of the social construction of organizational misconduct.

My aim with this systemic view is to show how social construction of misconduct unfolds through interrelated processes across levels of analysis: decision-making, labeling, and line-shifting. Within organizations, individual leaders engage in day-to-day decision-making, guided by their personal values and the influence of organizational structures they are embedded in. This can lead to behavior that potentially violates norms and is attributable to organizations and their leaders. In this regard, outside actors with authority to sanction behavior – called social control agents – evaluate organizations’ behavior by drawing on macro-level norms. When social control agents then attempt to label behavior as misconduct, contested interactions with organizations accused of misconduct ensue. Beyond this labeling of discrete instances of behavior, norms according to which behavior is labelled as right or wrong are shifted on the broader field level, through an interplay between groups of social control agents and organizations.

Each chapter of the dissertation zooms into a part of this overall picture, illuminating it from different levels of analysis. Together, the chapters coalesce into the systemic view of the social construction of organizational misconduct, which is synthesized and elaborated in the final chapter. This systemic view draws our attention to feedback effects between processes on different levels of analysis. It is then leveraged to guide future research towards distinct focus areas that require empirical and theoretical development, as well as to connect misconduct scholarship with other streams of literature.





Ansari, Shahzad
Roulet, Thomas


Deviance, Organizational misconduct, Organizational wrongdoing, Scandals, Social control


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (2078689)