He says corporate responsibility starts with understanding how we collectively remember and forget our past mistakes.
Hertie School Professor of Organization and Governance Sébastien Mena had only been in Berlin a few months when the German government agreed on a new law to make companies responsible for human rights violations or environmental issues in their supply chains.
If the German parliament passes the law later this year, companies would have to take action against foreign suppliers that violate such rights, or they will risk large fines starting in 2023. How businesses might mitigate some of the problems that stem from doing business – like social and environmental harms – is exactly Mena’s area of expertise.
“Essentially, I am interested in the role of business in problems like poor working conditions in supply chains or environmental issues like plastic pollution …. the kinds of things that are created by global economic activities,” says Mena. “Even though business organisations are now trying to do some good through corporate social responsibility initiatives, they also simply have huge social and environmental impacts.”
“I use an organisational sociology lens,” Mena explains, to examine how firms interact with civil society in areas like shareholder activism, sustainability programmes in developing countries and sustainable banking.
Mena came to the Hertie School from Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London and holds a PhD in Management from the University of Lausanne. His doctoral work was in global governance mechanisms; in particular, initiatives that assemble corporations, non-profits, and other actors to create standards for global business conduct.
He grew up near Lausanne, with parents from both Switzerland and Madagascar. In fact, the supply chain issue is one that has taken him back to his family’s country for research, where he has studied the vanilla industry. He also spent time with cocoa farmers on their plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. Mena looked at the impact of a chocolate manufacturer’s sustainability program, in which the company provided access to clean water through water filters.
“My research project was looking beyond the health impact to the broader social impact. How did the farmers perceive the company before and after their engagement? What happened in terms of their interactions with the company and company staff? Did they change?” Mena explains. While his research was independent, he gave feedback to the company about the program in return for gathering data at the site.
The power of memory in corporate social responsibility
He has also studied the textile industry in Southeast Asia. There, he examined how companies develop their responsibility codes, standards and practices, and whether it matches their actions. “This is where I got interested in the idea of how past history and memory can help us understand impact of business on society,” Mena says. It is not only a question of how corporations create social impact, but how they monitor problems – and how they keep attention focused on them. “Why is it that some problems just disappear from collective memory? How do we forget about them? I'm constantly working on this idea – how the processes of remembering and forgetting corporate misconduct are shaped and evolve over time. How do we use that to make sure harmful events don't happen again?“
Many people will remember that in 2015 the German carmaker Volkswagen had to pay huge fines for installing software in their engines that enabled cheating on emissions standards. But, Mena says, few know that nearly the same thing happened in the 1970s when VW was caught manipulating their engines and faced similar fines in the United States.
”We tend to think that we are good at remembering. But in fact, we are very selective in what we remember, and we forget most of things simply also because it helps us to focus,” he says. “This has been researched a lot in sociology. What I'm trying to do is to bring these ideas into management and business studies.“
Mena shows in his research the interactions between different stakeholders – between policymakers, lobbyists and industry associations that push for implementing or withdrawing certain rules. Slowly, over time, he says, this leads people to forget why the rules were there in the first place. “We have to look at all these dynamics, these organisational but also broader, regulatory and societal dynamics that over time make something less and less salient, and thus more likely to be repeated.“
In spring 2021, Mena taught the course Management and Leadership to Hertie School master’s students. It's an introductory course that looks at how organisations function This is not about governments or policymaking, Mena notes, but rather about a variety of organisations like public sector agencies, NGOs, charities, social enterprises, or corporate social responsibility initiatives of for-profit institutions that deal with public issues.
“I'm very much interested in how we understand the impact of this on society,” Mena says. “Take diversity and inclusion - most people attempt to measure the impact, but gender equality, for instance, is about much more than simply a 50-50 quota on management boards. It’s about the underlying norms and beliefs that we have about gender roles and relationships.”
Now that spring is here and some of the pandemic restrictions are easing, Mena is finally getting out and getting to know Berlin. “I was working in London before, and Berlin seems to be perfect opposite,“ he says. “They're similar in that they're both cosmopolitan and capital cities, and there's a lot of going on. But Berlin seems less stressed, more relaxed. People take their time, it’s calmer and more relaxed, and you can work effectively, but also enjoy the rest of your day.“