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The ‘Court of Public Opinion:’ Public Perceptions of Business Involvement in Human Rights Violations


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Public pressure is essential for providing multinational enterprises (MNEs) with motivation to follow the standards of human rights conduct set in soft-law instruments, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. But how does the public judge MNE involvement in human rights violations? We empirically answer this question drawing on an original survey of American adults. We asked respondents to judge over 12,000 randomly generated scenarios in which MNEs may be considered to have been involved in human rights violations. Our findings reveal substantial gaps between public judgments and the standards set in soft law and the normative literature. We identify the attributes of episodes of human rights violations involving MNEs that influence public judgments, including the relationship between the MNE and the perpetrator, the practice of due diligence, and the type of abuse. These results provide insights as to when we might expect public pressure to drive MNE compliance with soft-law instruments, and they direct attention to specific standards that will likely require stronger, ‘hard’ law approaches or broader efforts to shift the public’s view.
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Journal of Business Ethics
The Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness
Involvement inHuman Rights Violations
MatthewAmengual1 · RitaMota2· AlexanderRustler1
Received: 15 October 2021 / Accepted: 21 April 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Public pressure is essential for providing multinational enterprises (MNEs) with motivation to follow the standards of human
rights conduct set in soft-law instruments, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
But how does the public judge MNE involvement in human rights violations? We empirically answer this question drawing
on an original survey of American adults. We asked respondents to judge over 12,000 randomly generated scenarios in which
MNEs may be considered to have been involved in human rights violations. Our findings reveal substantial gaps between
public judgments and the standards set in soft law and the normative literature. We identify the attributes of episodes of
human rights violations involving MNEs that influence public judgments, including the relationship between the MNE and
the perpetrator, the practice of due diligence, and the type of abuse. These results provide insights as to when we might
expect public pressure to drive MNE compliance with soft-law instruments, and they direct attention to specific standards
that will likely require stronger, ‘hard’ law approaches or broader efforts to shift the public’s view.
Keywords Business and human rights· Public opinion· Multinational enterprises
Pressures on businesses to respect human rights emanate, in
part, from the so-called ‘court of public opinion’ (Ruggie,
2008a). This is especially true in the case of multinational
enterprises (MNEs), which operate across jurisdictions
where human rights are afforded varying levels of protec-
tion. In the absence of an international treaty on business and
human rights, a number of non-legally binding instruments
have proliferated over the last decade. These ‘soft-law’
instruments reflect the widely accepted claim that businesses
have human rights obligations, despite the ongoing debate
on the exact nature of those obligations (Arnold, 2016;
Wettstein, 2010a). The soft-law approach to business and
human rights is grounded in the recognition of MNEs’ desire
to preserve their reputation and ‘social license to operate,’
which can be negatively affected by public judgments that
an MNE has been involved in human rights abuses (Arnold,
2010; Buhmann, 2016; Cragg, 2012; Muchlinski, 2001). It
follows that public pressure, and, therefore, public views
regarding human rights, fundamentally shape the environ-
ment in which MNEs operate. Where commonly held beliefs
align with standards deriving from soft-law instruments
and with perspectives in the literature that form the norma-
tive foundations of those instruments, one can reasonably
expect MNEs to experience public pressure to act in accord-
ance with these standards.1 Where they do not, there is a
greater risk that noncompliance will carry few reputational
* Matthew Amengual
Rita Mota
Alexander Rustler
1 Saïd Business School, University ofOxford, Park End Street,
OxfordOX11HP, UK
2 Centre forCorporate Reputation, Saïd Business School,
University ofOxford, Oxford, UK
1 An important part of the literature on business and human rights
argues that MNEs possess human rights obligations that go beyond
a narrow interpretation of the most prominent soft-law instru-
ments (Santoro, 2009; Wettstein, 2009; Wood, 2012). Through-
out this paper, we will refer to normative arguments in the busi-
ness and human rights literature to discuss the nature and scope of
MNE responsibility, in addition to the provisions contained in soft-
law instruments; these arguments mostly support, but sometimes go
beyond, the legal framework. This approach allows us to shed light on
a broader range of questions, and to respond to the evolving nature of
the legal framework.
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
Yet, how the general public views MNE involvement in
human rights violations is not well understood. The busi-
ness and human rights literature has generated important
insights on the existence and contours of business human
rights obligations (Arnold, 2016; Bilchitz & Deva, 2013;
Hsieh, 2015; Macdonald, 2011; Wettstein, 2010a), as well
as on the changing regulatory landscape (Choudhury, 2018;
Deva, 2021; Seppala, 2009; Wettstein, 2012a). But, while
researchers have examined managers’ and employees’ per-
ceptions of business human rights obligations (Arkani &
Theobald, 2005; Egels-Zandén, 2017; Giuliani etal., 2020;
McBeth & Joseph, 2005; Obara, 2017; Puncheva-Michelotti
etal., 2010), few have addressed questions related to the
views of the general public (Schrempf-Stirling & van Buren,
2020).2 In this paper, we ask: how does the public judge
MNE involvement in human rights violations?
Our study brings a novel empirical approach to the busi-
ness and human rights literature by deploying an original
survey of a diverse national sample of 2420 American
adults. The survey included a conjoint experiment that pre-
sented respondents with randomly generated vignettes. After
each vignette, respondents indicated whether they perceived
a focal MNE as being involved in a human rights violation.
While all vignettes described situations in which an MNE
could be linked to a human rights violation, they varied key
elements of the episode that were selected in light of soft-
law instruments and related normative debates in the busi-
ness and human rights literature. By randomizing features
of the vignettes, we are able to estimate the average causal
effect of each element on public judgments, allowing us to
answer key questions about the way members of the Ameri-
can public construe business human rights violations. Does
the relationship between the MNE and the perpetrator influ-
ence public judgments? Do different types of rights provoke
distinct responses from the public? Is the public sensitive
to local (as opposed to internationally recognized) views
of permissible behavior? How does the practice of due dili-
gence influence public views? Does the public use an MNE’s
industry or size to infer whether it has been involved in a
human rights violation?
This paper makes an empirical contribution to the lit-
erature on business and human rights by answering these
questions. Although MNE human rights conduct does not
exclusively depend on public judgments, public opinion is
nevertheless a central element in theories of human rights
governance because companies are concerned about their
reputations (Diermeier, forthcoming) and public opinion
provides a political resource for activists (Soule, 2009). Yet,
business and human rights research has been developed with
little attention to when we might expect the public to be
more or less likely to judge an MNE as being involved in a
human rights violation. We make a unique contribution to
the literature by identifying factors that shape public judg-
ments of MNE human rights conduct, and by shedding light
on the weight that each of those factors has on the public’s
views of MNE involvement in human rights violations.
This knowledge is important for the business and human
rights field for two reasons. First, it informs debates in the
business and human rights literature, and amongst poli-
cymakers, regarding the right balance between ‘soft’ and
‘hard’ law approaches to the regulation of MNE human
rights conduct (Augenstein, 2018; Parella, 2020). A better
understanding of when the public is more or less likely to
judge a company to be involved in a human rights viola-
tion facilitates the identification of specific standards that
require stronger, ‘hard’ law approaches; equally, it can guide
efforts to shift the public’s view, so that ‘soft’ law instru-
ments become more effective as a result of increased social
pressure for compliance.
Second, a robust understanding of how the public judges
MNEs’ involvement in human rights violations can underpin
a more rigorous debate on the benefits and shortcomings of
relying upon a ‘business case’ for MNE compliance with
human rights standards. Despite the popularity of instru-
mental approaches to corporate social responsibility, schol-
ars have argued that it is unwise to assume that moral and
instrumental reasons for action always converge in corpo-
rate settings (Demuijnck & Fasterling, 2016; Gond etal.,
2009; Paine, 2000), and that this assumption is particularly
dangerous with regard to human rights (Wettstein, 2012b).
Our study demonstrates that, under certain circumstances,
the public systematically discounts MNE involvement in
human rights violations; if that happens, the ‘business case’
for compliance is likely weaker. A better understanding of
public judgments of MNE involvement in human rights vio-
lations provides a way to identify areas of tension between
economic and moral concerns (Margolis & Walsh, 2003),
and demonstrates the need for the development of theoretical
frameworks that take that tension into account.
In addition, our study furthers connections between busi-
ness and human rights research and a growing body of litera-
ture on corporate social irresponsibility (Clark etal., 2021;
Fiaschi etal., 2017; Kölbel etal., 2017; Lin-Hi & Müller,
2013; Nardella etal., 2020). Human rights violations are one
particularly important type of corporate social irresponsibil-
ity (Giuliani etal., 2014), yet it is unclear whether theories
of perceptions of irresponsible acts broadly defined (Lange
& Washburn, 2012) generalize to this domain. Studies sug-
gest that the general public blames buyers for the behavior of
their suppliers (Hartmann & Moeller, 2014), that reputations
spill over among corporations in the same industry (Barnett
2 There is a small literature on the general public’s view of human
rights (Hertel etal., 2009) and human rights organizations (Ron etal.,
2017), yet it does not focus on perceptions of business.
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The ‘Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness Involvement inHuman Rights…
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& King, 2008; Jonsson etal., 2009; Yu etal., 2008; Zavyal-
ova etal., 2012), and that perceived severity of harms is key
when people make attributions of irresponsibility (Lange &
Washburn, 2012). Examining the assumptions and expecta-
tions of these theories in the context of human rights viola-
tions provides an opportunity to refine our understanding of
perceptions of a highly consequential type of irresponsibility
(Giuliani etal., 2014). Furthermore, a focus on business and
human rights also foregrounds the potential for underex-
plored factors, such as due diligence, to influence public
judgments of unethical behavior. Human rights due diligence
is substantively different from other types of business due
diligence because it focuses on risks to rights-bearers rather
than risks to the firm, and it is meant to be an ongoing, itera-
tive effort (Ruggie, 2009; United Nations, 2011). Hence, our
analyses explore how public judgments are affected by pro-
active corporate behavior that demonstrates care, rather than
by the mere sincerity of socially oriented gestures (Chen
etal., 2020; Warren, 2022).
The paper proceeds by, first, situating our study in the
business and human rights literature and highlighting the
role of public opinion in the governance of MNE conduct.
The following sections describe the empirical methods and
report the main results. The paper then considers whether
the findings generalize to people who are more politically
active and, therefore, are more likely to exert pressure on
MNEs. It concludes with a discussion of implications for
the transnational governance of human rights.
Social Expectations, Public Perceptions,
andHuman Rights
It is widely accepted that human beings have certain fun-
damental rights that ought to be respected. The existence
and importance of human rights have been justified from
a variety of philosophical perspectives (see, e.g., Nickel,
1987; Nussbaum, 1997; Shestack, 1998). While, histori-
cally, human rights were seen as a matter for states, it is
now almost universally accepted that businesses also have
human rights responsibilities. This acceptance stems from
an acknowledgment of the power that businesses hold, as
well as their impact on society. The precise nature and scope
of business human rights responsibilities are still debated.
While not rejecting the existence of related moral obliga-
tions, some authors resist the notion that private actors can
be ascribed human rights obligations that are comparable
to those of states (Bishop, 2012; Hsieh, 2015, 2017). Other
authors defend the existence of such obligations, but suggest
that they are fairly limited in scope (Arnold, 2010). Another
growing strand of the literature argues that businesses have
a responsibility not only to respect human rights, but also to
protect and realize them under certain circumstances (San-
toro, 2009; Wettstein, 2009; Wood, 2012).
Despite the debate on the nature and scope of business
human rights responsibilities (for an overview, see Brenkert,
2016), it is broadly accepted that businesses have at least
some human rights-related obligations. A growing field of
scholarship has sought to understand how business human
rights responsibilities can be, and are, discharged. Accord-
ingly, the business and human rights field has expanded to
include not just legal and philosophical accounts, but also
contributions from other disciplines, such as management
(Schrempf-Stirling & van Buren, 2020; Wettstein etal.,
2019). This expansion reflects the recognition that the cur-
rent legal framework is not sufficient to ensure business
respect for human rights and that it is necessary to exam-
ine extra-legal factors that may feed into human rights
Social expectations are one of the extra-legal factors
of particular importance to MNE compliance with human
rights standards, especially where domestic legislation is
insufficient to address MNE behavior. This is because, in
the absence of a legally binding treaty, soft-law instruments
play a central role in establishing standards and governing
MNE human rights conduct (Kirkebø & Langford, 2018).
The success of these instruments relies heavily on moni-
toring and enforcement by non-state actors (Nolan, 2014;
Ruggie & Sherman, 2017).
Among these initiatives, the United Nations Guiding
Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011: the UNGP)
is the most prominent. The UNGP and similar governance
mechanisms are, at least implicitly, built on a ‘business
case’ for compliance that derives from the public pressure
MNEs experience when they are involved in human rights
violations (Arnold, 2010; Carroll & Shabana, 2010). John
Ruggie, who developed the UNGP, explicitly appealed to
the link between social expectations, social license to oper-
ate, and MNE human rights conduct (Ruggie, 2008a, para.
54). According to Ruggie, the business responsibility not
to violate human rights corresponds to a “transnational
social norm” that “has acquired near-universal recognition”
(Ruggie, 2009, para. 46; Ruggie & Sherman, 2017, p. 923),
and failure to comply with that social norm “can subject
companies to the courts of public opinion” (Ruggie, 2008a,
para. 54). The phrase ‘court of public opinion’ has become
a widely diffused metaphor for the reputational pressures
experienced by corporations that are implicated in human
rights violations.
Scholarship has identified a series of mechanisms through
which the ‘court of public opinion’ plays a role in human
rights governance. MNEs value their good standing and rep-
utation (Diermeier, forthcoming), which is harmed when the
public perceives them as being involved in a human rights
violation (Wheeler, 2015). MNEs seek to maintain their
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M.Amengual et al.
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social license to operate, which depends on support from
the general public (Buhmann, 2016). Reputations also mat-
ter because consumers boycott products from MNEs that
they perceive to be involved in human rights abuses (Kam &
Deichert, 2020) and report a willingness to pay a premium
for goods sold by firms that respect human rights (Hertel
etal., 2009).
Public opinion also influences the work of activist groups
that advocate for stronger human rights protections. Broad
public support or opposition constitutes part of overall
political, social, and corporate opportunity structures in
national and international domains (Soule, 2009). Where
public opinion is supportive, social movements are more
successful (Soule & Olzak, 2004). Public opinion also influ-
ences the tactics of social movements that choose frames
that they believe will resonate with the general public (Car-
penter, 2005). The role that public opinion plays in influ-
encing social activism is important because campaigns can
influence firm reputations and financial performance (King
& Soule, 2007).
In addition to playing a direct role in the governing of
business conduct, public opinion influences efforts to create
new business and human rights legislation. In the lead up to
the 2017 French Duty of Vigilance Law, public awareness
of pervasive corporate human rights misconduct acceler-
ated efforts to pass legislation to enhance MNE account-
ability (Evans, 2020). Perhaps most directly, the 2020 Swiss
Responsible Business Initiative, a proposal to hold MNEs
accountable for their conduct abroad, failed to achieve a
majority in a sufficient number of cantons in a referendum,
limiting a potential ‘hardening’ of soft-law standards.
Despite the importance of public opinion in human rights
governance, we know surprisingly little about how the gen-
eral public judges the conduct of MNEs. Under what condi-
tions is the public likely to believe that an MNE is involved
in a human rights violation?
Contextual Elements andPublic Opinion
In this section, we discuss a set of contextual elements that
may influence public opinion about MNE involvement in
human rights violations, and that are prominent in soft-law
instruments and in the normative literature. The contextual
elements discussed in this section form the basis for our
experimental design. We focus on MNE operations outside
of the firm’s home country because this is the context of
most policy and scholarship debates (Muchlinski, 2001;
Ruggie, 2013; Wettstein, 2009). We group these elements
in three broad categories: the type of MNE involvement, the
nature of the abuse, and characteristics of the focal MNE.
Type ofinvolvement
We begin with the type of MNE involvement in a human
rights abuse: specifically, the relationship between the MNE
and the perpetrator, and whether and how the MNE under-
takes human rights due diligence.
Relationship withthePerpetrator
The relationship between the focal MNE and the perpetra-
tor constitutes a key feature of episodes of involvement in
human rights violations. We define the ‘perpetrator’ as the
actor that engages in the actual or potential abuse. MNEs are
most commonly accused of being involved in human rights
violations through the actions of their subsidiaries, suppliers,
and governments of the states where they operate.
Under the UNGP, the responsibility to respect human
rights falls upon the ‘business enterprise;’ although this term
is not defined, it is usually interpreted as including both the
parent company and its subsidiaries (Cassell & Ramasastry,
2016, p. 47). The Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational
Enterprises (2011: the “OECD Guidelines”), whose human
rights chapter is aligned with the UNGP, explicitly apply to
‘enterprise groups,’ including subsidiaries. Research sug-
gests that social evaluations of an MNE are affected by those
of its subsidiaries (Zavyalova etal., 2012). Based on the
tendency for the public to associate MNEs with their sub-
sidiaries, we treat this type of relationship as a baseline with
which to compare other relationships.
Many MNEs operate globally through networks of suppli-
ers instead of subsidiaries. In doing so, MNEs add distance
between themselves and the businesses that may be accused
of human rights violations. While MNEs may not formally
control suppliers, scholars have argued that MNEs still have
human rights obligations in these circumstances (Macdon-
ald, 2011) and activists have implicated MNEs in abuses
perpetrated by suppliers. A prominent example is the scandal
that arose in the 1990s around Nike. Nike outsourced pro-
duction to Asian factories that violated international labor
standards, including prohibitions on child labor. Despite
Nike’s efforts to claim that they did not control suppliers,
anti-sweatshop campaigns implicated Nike directly, leading
the MNE to address human rights abuses by its suppliers
(Locke, 2013).
The UNGP address the possibility of MNEs contributing
or being directly linked to their suppliers’ abuses (Van Ho,
2021). Domestic legislation in a number of countries obliges
MNEs to take (limited) steps to address potential human
rights abuses in their supply chains, including the UK Mod-
ern Slavery Act. Political movements in many countries have
sought to expand these legal obligations, drawing on public
support generated by high-profile scandals (Evans, 2020).
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Yet, evidence on the extent to which the public views
MNEs as tightly linked to their suppliers’ human rights
conduct remains incomplete. Work on corporate social irre-
sponsibility suggests that perceptions of corporate culpabil-
ity may be weakened if other actors can plausibly be seen as
causally linked to the harm (Lange & Washburn, 2012). Yet,
one study of the general public in Germany suggests that
MNEs are perceived to be as responsible for their own envi-
ronmental actions as for those of their suppliers (Hartmann
& Moeller, 2014). Does the public perceive MNE involve-
ment in human rights violations similarly if the offending
business is a supplier instead of a subsidiary?
MNEs have also been accused of complicity with the
human rights abuses of states in the countries where they
operate. Unlike mere involvement, complicity requires
knowledge that one’s actions or omissions might have
harmful effects (Clapham & Jerbi, 2001). We focus on two
types of complicity with states: beneficial complicity, which
occurs when MNEs accrue benefits from the human rights
impacts; and silent complicity, which refers to MNEs’ failure
to speak out about those impacts (Tófalo, 2006; Wettstein,
2010a, 2013).
We begin with beneficial complicity, which is directly
addressed in the Commentary to the UNGP (United Nations,
2011, p. 18). When an MNE knowingly benefits from a
state’s actions to repress labor unions or to violently sup-
press protests, for example, it may be complicit in the viola-
tion (Wettstein, 2010a).
Even if they do not benefit from an abuse, businesses
may be expected to condemn human rights abuses by oth-
ers. Failure to do so may carry culpability (Clapham &
Jerbi, 2001) due to the fact that silence can be interpreted as
“moral support or encouragement” (Wettstein, 2010a, p. 37).
Even though MNEs often attempt to portray themselves as
‘innocent bystanders’ in this type of situation, it is clear that
their mere presence in an abusive context may equate to (if
not legal, at least moral) complicity (Martin, 2011). The case
of Shell in Nigeria is often used as an example of such silent
complicity because the MNE remained silent when activists
protesting oil exploration were executed without a fair trial.
Shell’s silence and continuation of economic activities in
the face of known human rights violations by the Nigerian
state were widely interpreted as constituting tacit support
for the state’s actions.
The number of allegations of business complicity is sub-
stantial (Ruggie, 2008b, c; Tófalo, 2006), yet we know of
no analyses of the public’s view of them. Is the public as
likely to judge an MNE to be involved in human rights viola-
tions when the relevant relationship is with a state, instead
of a subsidiary or a supplier? Does the public differentiate
between beneficial and silent complicity? Answers to these
questions are key to understanding when MNEs will face
more or less public pressure to comply with standards of
human rights conduct.
Due Diligence
The public’s view of MNE involvement in human rights vio-
lations may also be influenced by whether a focal business
is responsive to the context in which it operates and under-
takes actions to address potential violations. Central to these
actions is human rights due diligence: a standard of prudent
conduct that includes conducting impact assessment, acting
to address impacts, and monitoring the effectiveness of those
actions (Ruggie & Sherman 2017). Under the UNGP, due
diligence corresponds to an obligation to engage actively
with human rights impacts; it is a standard of expected con-
duct that corporations must meet in order to discharge their
responsibility to respect human rights (Ruggie, 2009; United
Nations, 2011).
Stakeholders increasingly demand that MNEs undertake
due diligence. For example, Oxfam criticized U.S. and Euro-
pean food retailers that source from suppliers at high risk of
human rights violations without undertaking due diligence
(Franck & Prapha, 2021). A failure to conduct due diligence
may be perceived as a lack of care or concern for those
affected. Studies have shown that, when people perceive
corporate failure as something that could have been con-
trolled, they tend to react negatively (Park & Rogan, 2019).
Furthermore, businesses that perform impact assessments,
but do not act on the findings, breach their obligations under
the UNGP.
Conversely, if a firm identifies a human rights impact and
tries, but fails, to prevent or mitigate it, the public may be
much more forgiving. Under the UNGP, an MNE that con-
ducts human rights impact assessment, identifies an actual or
potential harm, and takes appropriate action to mitigate that
impact, is acting in accordance with its obligations. Even the
best efforts may fail, and the public is likely to understand
this. There is evidence that people are more lenient when an
actor fails to achieve a certain outcome if that actor put in
high levels of effort; in such cases, people are more likely to
respond with sympathy (Weiner, 1995). Furthermore, visible
attempts to prevent or mitigate harm may be perceived as
manifestations of care, which is likely to weaken damaging
perceptions of hypocrisy (Chen etal., 2020).
This analysis suggests another series of pertinent ques-
tions that inform our understanding of whether public
pressure may contribute to improving MNE human rights
conduct. Are people less likely to perceive an MNE to be
involved in human rights abuses when it conducts due dili-
gence? Are people less likely to perceive an MNE as being
involved in human rights violations if the MNE unsuccess-
fully acted on findings than if the MNE did not act, or did
not conduct due diligence at all?
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M.Amengual et al.
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Nature oftheAbuse
Although prominent international organizations, such as
the UN, take a broad approach to defining the spectrum of
human rights that businesses have a responsibility to respect,
we do not know how the public views this spectrum. We
consider different types of abuses that affect a variety of
human rights, as well as how information on local norms
regarding specific abuses may influence public judgments
of MNEs.
Although the UN framework (2011) asserts that businesses
should respect, at a minimum, all rights included in the
International Bill of Human Rights and the Declaration on
Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work set out by the
International Labor Organization (ILO), the range of human
rights that businesses consider in practice varies widely. For
example, a study of FTSE 100 firms found that, while 77%
of them included the right to form a trade union, only 18%
included the right to a decent standard of life (Preuss &
Brown, 2012). If large swaths of the public do not recognize
a certain human right, they will not judge an MNE linked to
impacts on that right to be involved in a human rights viola-
tion. In this subsection, we discuss six representative abuses
that we include in our empirical study.
We begin with child labor, one of the most widely refer-
enced abuses in the context of business and human rights.
Child labor violates rights that are recognized in a large
number of policy instruments, such as the Universal Dec-
laration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on
the Rights of the Child (CRC). Child labor is a highly emo-
tive issue (White, 1994), which attracts public attention
in the Global North like few other issues occurring in the
Global South (Edmonds, 2007). The public’s magnitude of
sympathy, and likelihood to deem a particular human rights
abuse as severe, is heightened if the victims are considered
to belong to an especially vulnerable group, such as children
(Diermeier, forthcoming). Given the broad legal recogni-
tion of the rights involved, as well as the moral outrage that
the abuse is likely to cause, we expect child labor to trigger
strong responses regarding MNE involvement; we therefore
treat this abuse as a baseline.
Many allegations of business human rights abuses are
related to other attributes of workers’ rights. Among the
wide spectrum of workers’ rights, the right to a living wage
is particularly salient. The right to a just and favorable remu-
neration, that allows workers and their families to have an
adequate standard of living, is enshrined in the UDHR and
the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cul-
tural Rights (ICESCR). Beyond the requirement that busi-
nesses have to pay their own workers adequately, scholars
have argued that buying from suppliers that do not pay a
living wage can, in and of itself, constitute a human rights
abuse (Giuliani etal., 2014). Rights organizations have
pushed to include living wages in the human rights obliga-
tions of MNEs leading global value chains (LeBaron etal.,
There is evidence, however, that businesses do not sub-
scribe to such a demanding view of their obligations regard-
ing living wages. For example, Obara and Peattie (2018)
found that many firms view their human rights obligations
as largely restricted to the domain of ‘doing no harm,’ which
arguably does not preclude the payment of sub-living wages
in supply chains. Only some businesses have committed to
living wages, and many of those that have made such com-
mitments have been criticized for failing to deliver (LeBaron
etal., 2021).
Evidence from a 2009 study suggests that a majority of
Americans perceive the right to a minimum standard of liv-
ing as a human right (Hertel etal., 2009). More recently,
intensive campaigns around living wages, including those
linked to the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,
may have expanded these views further. Yet, we do not know
how the general public assesses situations where an entity
related to an MNE fails to pay a living wage.
A further type of human rights abuse that has become
increasingly visible is the discrimination of ethnic minori-
ties. This type of abuse violates rights affirmed in a variety
of international human rights instruments, including the
UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR), the ICESCR, the CRC, and the UN Dec-
laration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or
Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. In an employ-
ment context, discrimination against ethnic minorities
breaches ILO Convention No. 111. While the UNGP do not
explicitly address racial discrimination, their reference to
international human rights instruments that do address this
issue should be read as implicit recognition of this type of
violation (George, 2021). Discrimination of ethnic and racial
minorities in business practices, such as hiring, is still per-
vasive across the world, despite domestic and international
legal protection (Quillian etal., 2019). Social movements
calling attention to racism and discrimination have grown in
recent years and may influence the public’s view. Yet, there
is evidence that ‘racial apathy’ is an increasingly common
form of prejudice; this phenomenon could desensitize the
public to some extent (Forman & Lewis, 2006), making it
less likely that people perceive discrimination as a human
rights issue. It is therefore unclear how the public judges
MNEs that are related to perpetrators engaged in this type
of abuse.
Violent repression of protests is another human rights
abuse that is frequently found in business contexts (Del Bene
etal., 2018, p. 620; Poulos & Haddad, 2016, p. 5; Wettstein,
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The ‘Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness Involvement inHuman Rights…
1 3
2010a, p. 36, 2012a, p. 742). The violent repression of pro-
tests can violate a number of human rights, such as the right
to physical integrity, the right to liberty and security, the
right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to
freedom of peaceful assembly, as recognized in the UDHR
and the ICCPR. The combination of physical injury and dep-
rivation of freedom of expression is likely to trigger strong
emotional reactions from the public. However, we do not
know how the public views MNEs that are related to perpe-
trators of this type of abuse.
An additional type of human rights abuse that is perva-
sive in business contexts relates to environmental harm. A
common example of environmental harm is the contami-
nation of community land, which impacts, at a minimum,
the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable
environment; this right has been the focus of the UN Special
Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment since
2012 (United Nations, 2019). Environmental rights are rec-
ognized in regional instruments, such as the African Charter
on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Inter-American Sys-
tem, but adjudicators dealing with environmental issues in
other contexts often have to rely on the ‘greening’ of other
human rights norms, such as the right to health. The ‘green-
ing’ approach conceptualizes a safe, clean, healthy, and
sustainable environment as essential to the full enjoyment
of other internationally recognized human rights (United
Nations, 2018). However, efforts to link the environment
and human rights are fairly recent and underdeveloped. It is
possible that many people still see them as separate themes,
and, if that is the case, they may not be as likely to perceive
MNEs linked to environmental damage as being involved in
a human rights violation.
Our last representative example is the destruction of a
sacred site, which harms cultural rights. Violations of cul-
tural rights in business contexts often involve harm to indig-
enous rights, which are grounded in fundamental human
rights principles such as non-discrimination, self-determi-
nation, and cultural integrity; these rights are recognized in
specific instruments, such as the ILO Convention No. 169
and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples. A growing number of high-profile events, espe-
cially in the mining industry, has reinvigorated the public’s
attention to cultural and indigenous rights. For example,
mining MNE Rio Tinto destroyed Juukan Gorge, an Abo-
riginal sacred site in Australia, despite the opposition of the
Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (Albeck-Ripka,
2020). Although these are severe incidents that often trig-
ger public outcry, cultural rights remain relatively underde-
veloped, for reasons that include the widespread view that
culture is a ‘luxury’ (Stamatopoulou, 2007, pp. 4–6). They
also may not trigger the same type of emotive response of
moral outrage as other abuses, such as child labor.
While all of these rights are recognized in international
law, we do not know how the public perceives situations
where they are violated. How does the type of abuse affect
the likelihood that the public will judge the MNE to be
involved in a human rights violation?
Local Views
Beyond the type of abuse, public perceptions may also be
influenced by local norms that differ from international
human rights standards. That is, the public may tolerate
behavior that constitutes a human rights abuse under inter-
national human rights law, but that is permissible in a par-
ticular local context. This is a matter of debate in the norma-
tive literature; hence, we root our inquiry into local norms
in philosophical arguments regarding the universality of
rights and of moral standards. The debate on the universal-
ity of rights is important because it points to arguments as to
whether or not it makes sense to view human rights as appli-
cable in every context around the world; more broadly, it is
important to ask whether it is plausible to expect the same
moral standards to apply to every actor, in every community.
A school of thought known as communitarianism rejects
the notion that there can be universal human rights; accord-
ing to this view, considerations of justice only make sense in
the context of a particular community, with its shared history
and shared meanings (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 69; Ulrich, 2008,
p. 239). Universalism, on the other hand, claims that moral
rights, based on the inherent worth and equality of every per-
son, are universally valid (Donnelly, 2013; Werhane, 1985;
Wettstein, 2009). Universalism is sometimes associated with
concerns about moral imperialism and cultural assimilation;
as a response to those concerns, other approaches attempt
to combine elements of universalism and communitarian-
ism. For example, Donaldson and Dunfee (1994) posit the
existence of two different levels of moral norms: universal
‘hypernorms,’ deriving from a hypothetical macrosocial con-
tract; and community-specific ‘microsocial contract norms,’
deriving from a ‘moral free space’ that allows communities
to stipulate their own ethical rules, within the bounds of the
‘hypernorms.’ Microsocial contract norms must, however,
be compatible with hypernorms, which the authors take to
include ‘core human rights’ and the obligation to respect
human dignity (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994, p. 267). Simi-
larly, Donnelly’s (1984, 2013) notion of ‘relative universal-
ity’ of human rights allows variation from context to context,
so long as a number of universal rights are protected. The
idea that there should be at least a degree of tolerance for
local norms and traditions is likely to attract some sympa-
thy from the public. This analysis raises the question: is the
public less likely to perceive an MNE as being involved in
a human rights violation if the abuse is permissible under
local norms?
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
Business Characteristics
The characteristics of the MNE are the final features that we
investigate. We focus on the size and power of the MNE, as
well as its industry.
MNE size and power may influence moral judgments
regarding business human rights obligations (Clapham &
Jerbi, 2001; Wettstein, 2010b; Wood, 2012); this claim is a
manifestation of the widely held position that ‘ought implies
can.’ A large company that is perceived to have power to
influence the actions of a subsidiary, suppliers, or a host state
can be perceived to have a moral obligation to intervene in
the event of a human rights violation. Conversely, a small
company may be judged not to have that power; hence, it
may not be ascribed the same level of moral responsibil-
ity (Kim etal., 2015). Yet, we have a poor understanding
of whether these factors are reflected in public perceptions.
Does the size of the MNE affect public judgments about
MNE involvement in human rights violations?
Finally, the industry in which an MNE operates may
come to bear on public opinion. Organizations in stigma-
tized categories are stereotyped and viewed as essentially
flawed; their actions are therefore interpreted in a negative
light (Devers etal., 2009). Indeed, even in non-stigmatized
categories, backlash for business misconduct and scandals
‘spill over’ among businesses in the same industry (Barnett
& King, 2008; Yu etal., 2008; Zavyalova etal., 2012) as
observers generalize from unethical behavior of one organi-
zation to other similar organizations (Jonsson etal., 2009).
Are members of the public more likely to view an MNE as
being involved in human rights abuses if it operates in an
industry with a more salient history of abuse?
Research Design
To answer these questions, we fielded an original survey
of 2420 American adults. Before fielding the survey, we
registered our design and analysis plan.3 The survey was
completed between March and April 2021.4 We have chosen
to focus on Americans because they are more likely to have
power to influence corporate choices than less empowered
communities in developing countries. The respondents were
provided by the survey firm Dynata (formally, SurveySam-
pling International), which maintains a pool of respond-
ents that is representative of the U.S. adult population in
terms of gender, age, region, and other attributes. Dynata
directed a sample from this pool to our online survey hosted
on Qualtrics.5
Studies have shown that survey experiments conducted
using online convenience samples provide results similar to
those obtained using probability samples (Berinsky etal.,
2012; Coppock, 2019; Mullinix etal., 2016). Our sample
is more closely representative of the U.S. population than
other commonly used convenience samples, such as Ama-
zon Mechanical Turk, which often are substantially younger
and more educated than the U.S. adult population (Berin-
sky etal., 2012). As shown in Table1, our sample closely
matches the U.S. adult population across a range of dimen-
sions, with only a small difference in the portion of peo-
ple who did not complete a high school education and who
identify as Hispanic.
We used a conjoint survey experiment that presented
respondents with a set of randomly generated vignettes.
Empirical researchers often embed experiments into large-
scale surveys in order to test causal claims in samples that
are representative of populations (Mutz, 2011). Using a sur-
vey experiment, we are able to answer the questions raised
above about factors that may cause people to perceive that
an MNE has, or has not, been involved in a human rights
Conjoint experiments are one class of survey experiments
that involve the simultaneous manipulation of the multiple
elements of vignettes (for a detailed account, see Hainmu-
eller etal., 2014). They have been increasingly used across
social science fields to analyze a range of multidimensional
public views, including perceptions of political candidates
(Hainmueller etal., 2014), immigrants (Hainmueller etal.,
2015), terrorist attacks (Huff & Kertzer, 2018), and climate
policies (Bechtel & Scheve, 2013).
Conjoint experiments have characteristics that are helpful
to answer the questions raised in the previous section. First,
the judgments that people register in conjoint experiments
have been shown to reflect real-world behavior (Hainmueller
etal., 2015). Therefore, findings from these experiments are
likely to be externally as well as internally valid. Second, by
simultaneously randomizing multiple elements of vignettes,
conjoint experiments can incorporate a wide range of treat-
ments. This attribute is important in our setting because peo-
ple’s judgments about MNE involvement in human rights
violations depend on a number of contextual factors. With a
more traditional survey experiment, we would only be able
to probe a small number of these potential factors, while
3 The registration is posted at OSF: https:// osf. io/ 56dnp/ All data and
the statistical code to replicate the analyses will be made publicly
available in the same OSF locationupon publication.
4 The survey was approved by the submitting authors’ departmental
Research Ethics Committee.
5 While we expected the sample from Dynata’s pool to be repre-
sentative, we also used quotas to ensure that our final sample closely
matched the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, region, race/eth-
nicity, and education.
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with a conjoint approach we can investigate a range of rel-
evant factors in a single survey. Third, conjoint experiments
can reduce social desirability bias (Horiuchi etal., 2021).
Like most survey experiments, conjoint experiments do not
require the respondent to state their views directly. Further-
more, conjoint experiments mix sensitive elements, such as
people’s views of child labor, with non-sensitive elements.
As a result, respondents are able to rationalize their judg-
ments based on non-sensitive elements of the vignette and
are less likely to perceive that their judgments will be seen
by researchers as inconsistent with social norms.
In our survey, respondents were first given instructions,
and then presented with five different vignettes, generating
data ona total of 12,100 respondent judgments (a full tran-
script of the survey has been posted in our pre-registration).6
Each vignette contained six elements (Table2), within the
limits of the number of elements that have been shown
to be effective in conjoint designs (Bansak etal., 2021).7
These elements were randomly combined to create a short
narrative, so that, for each participant and for each round,
the vignettes were different combinations of the elements
described in Table2.
Figure1 shows an example vignette.8 The vignettes
described the MNE’s industry, which we selected to vary
saliency of human rights abuses, measured for each indus-
try by counting the number of articles and reports in Eng-
lish archived in the Business and Human Rights Resource
Table 1 Sample characteristics
a Education, race, and gender from the 2018 current population survey. Age from the 2020 current popula-
tion survey. We do not weight our sample
b There was one non-response for the race and ethnicity question. Therefore, the N for this question is 2419
Sample (N = 2420) (%) U.S. popula-
tion over 18a
18–24 11.5 11.4
25–34 15.7 17.8
35–44 17.6 16.4
45–54 14.9 15.8
55–64years 17.6 16.8
65years and over 22.7 21.7
No high school diploma 6.8 10.9
High school or equivalent 30.3 28.6
Some college, less than 4-year degree 29.6 28.2
Bachelor's degree or higher 33.3 32.3
Race and ethnicityb
White alone 65.8 62.9
Black or African American alone 12.4 12.0
Hispanic 13.0 16.6
American Indian and Alaska Native alone 0.8 0.8
Asian alone 6.2 6.0
Native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander alone 0.3 0.3
Two or more races 1.5 1.4
Male 46.9 48.4
Female 52.9 51.6
Another gender identity 0.3
6 Research demonstrates that including five tasks should not bias
results (Bansak et al., 2018). In all analyses, we cluster standard
errors by respondent.
7 Our design was fully randomized (eliminating the need for exclu-
8 In order to maintain the logical flow of the vignettes, we did not
randomize the order of all elements; respondents were always told
the MNE’s size and industry before being confronted with the abuse.
However, the order of the final two elements of the vignettes (local
view and due diligence) did not create a logical constraint. There-
fore, we randomized the presentation of each of these elements by
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
Table 2 Structure of the vignettes
Attribute Wording
Large [Company X] is a large company with a lot of influence in the foreign country
Small [Company X] is a small company that is just starting out in the foreign country
Oil Oil
Clothing Clothing
Automobile Auto manufacturing
Solar energy Solar energy
Bicycle Bicycle manufacturing
Subsidiary [Company X] owns and controls a subsidiary business
Supplier [Company X] buys inputs from a supplier in this foreign country
Beneficial complicity [Company X] benefitted when this country’s government
Silent complicity [Company X] did not speak out publicly to condemn this country's government
Employ child labor Employ children
Pay less than living wage Pay workers less than a living wage
Contaminate land Contaminate a community’s land
Destroy sacred site Destroy a sacred site
Violently repress protest Violently repress protests
Discriminate against minorities Discriminate against an ethnic minority
Local view
Should not People in this country think that [the government/businesses] should not be able to [abuse]
Can sometimes People in this country think that [the government/businesses] should sometimes be able to [abuse]
Due diligence
No due diligence [Company X] did not try to find out whether [its subsidiary/its supplier/the government] might [abuse]
No action [Company X] knew that [its subsidiary/its supplier/the government] might [abuse] but did nothing to prevent it
Tried to prevent [Company X] knew that its subsidiary/its supplier/the government] might [abuse] and tried to prevent it
Fig. 1 Example vignette
Please read the first scenario about an American company that does business in a country
- Auto Manufacturing Company A is a small company that is just starting out in this foreign
- It owns and controls a subsidiary business in this country that started employing children.
- Auto Manufacturing Company A did not try to find out whether its subsidiary might employ
- People in this country think that businesses should not be able to employ children.
In your view, was Auto Manufacturing Company A involved in a human rights violation?
Yes [ ] / No [ ]
Please explain your answer in your own words.
Why do you believe that Company A was, or was not, involved in a human rights violation?
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Centre database. We chose high and low salience energy
industries (oil, 8798 articles9; and solar energy, 39), as well
as high, medium, and low salience manufacturing industries
(clothing, 3832 articles; automobile manufacturing, 1366;
and bicycle manufacturing, 8). The vignettes also included
the size and level of influence of the MNE, as well as the
relationship between the focal MNE and the perpetrator, the
type of abuse, the way people in the country view the abuse,
and information on any due diligence carried out by the focal
After each vignette, we asked respondents: “In your view,
was Company X10 involved in a human rights violation?” We
chose this wording because ‘involvement’ is a broad term
(unlike ‘responsible,’ which can imply causality) and it is the
type of judgment that MNEs concerned about public pres-
sure seek to avoid. Respondents were given a simple Yes (1)
/ No (0) choice to answer the question. A binary choice sim-
plifies the task and enables straightforward interpretation of
the results. For the first two vignettes, respondents were also
asked to explain their answer in their own words. We only
asked open-ended questions for two of the five vignettes to
reduce the burden on respondents. Of the 2420 participants,
we randomly sampled 500 respondents and inductively hand
coded 1000 responses to the open-ended questions (coding
guide in Appendix, Sect.Open-Ended Responses).11
To understand which elements influence public judg-
ments, we estimate the average marginal component effect
(AMCE) of each element. Hainmueller etal. (2014) estab-
lish that the AMCE is the quantity of interest in conjoint
experiments that analyze multidimensional preferences.
To estimate the AMCEs, we follow standard practice and
use an Ordinary Least Squares regression. We report the
regression we used to estimate AMCEs in table form in the
Appendix (Table5). We also plot the AMCEs with 95% con-
fidence intervals to ease interpretation (Figs.2, 3, 4, 5). Each
observation in these analyses is a response to a randomly
generated vignette. The dependent variable is whether the
respondent indicated that the MNE was involved in a human
rights violation. The independent variables are dummy vari-
ables for each element of the vignette that the respondent
saw. The coefficients of the regression are the AMCEs. They
can be interpreted as the average causal effect of each ele-
ment, conditional on the joint distribution of all other ele-
ments. Each AMCE is presented compared with a baseline
(the omitted category in the regression). For example, the
AMCE for ‘supplier’ is the average change in the probability
of a respondent judging the MNE to be involved in a human
rights violation when the perpetrator is a ‘supplier’ instead
of a ‘subsidiary,’ conditional on the uniform distribution of
all other attributes (i.e., size, industry, abuse, due diligence,
and local views). Thus, by estimating the AMCEs we are
able to answer questions regarding the influence of multiple
contextual elements on American adults’ judgments of MNE
involvement in human rights violations.
Finally, while our inferential goal is to understand the
views of all American adults, public pressure on MNEs
arises mainly from politically active individuals. To iden-
tify this subset of the population, we asked two blocks of
questions that probed levels of political activity. One block
asked about political activities towards business, another
block asked about political activities towards the state (see
Appendix Table7). By asking these questions before the
vignettes, we ensured that the answers would not be influ-
enced by the treatments. We examine heterogenous treat-
ment effects by estimating Average Component Interaction
Effects (ACIEs), which can be interpreted as the difference
between the AMCEs for each subgroup.
Main Findings
Overall, respondents viewed the MNE as being involved
in a human rights violation in 59% of all responses. This
result is important in itself. The scenarios were constructed
in line with prominent soft-law instruments and with influ-
ential normative arguments in the business and human rights
literature; they were designed so that, in all cases, the MNE
would have been involved in a human rights violation in
light of those standards and arguments. However, in nearly
four out of ten cases, the public did not judge the MNE as
being involved in a human rights violation. The remainder of
this section presents analyses of our findings regarding the
different types of MNE involvement, MNE characteristics,
and specific abuses, as well as an analysis of a subgroup of
more politically active respondents.
Type ofInvolvement
We begin with the effects of relationships and due diligence,
reported in Fig.2. Compared to the baseline of ‘subsidi-
ary,’ vignettes that described the perpetrator as a ‘supplier’
caused respondents to be 7.5 percentagepoints less likely
to perceive the MNE as being involved in a human rights
violation (p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.099, − 0.052]). This rep-
resents a substantial decline in perceptions of involvement,
which is surprising given both previous research (Hartmann
9 The number for oil includes the oil, gas, and coal industries. The
database does not disaggregate these industries.
10 Each round of the survey used a different letter for the company,
running A through E.
11 The survey included four attention checks to increase engagement
and screen out non-engaged respondents (described in Appendix,
Sect. Attention and Speed). We excluded respondents who did not
pass at least two attention-check questions.
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
& Moeller, 2014) and the efforts of activists to tie MNEs to
the abuses of their suppliers.
Similarly, vignettes that described the MNE as ben-
efitting from the actions of a government caused a 10.2
percentage point decline in the probability of people per-
ceiving the MNE as being involved in a human rights
violation, compared with ‘subsidiary’ (p < 0.001, 95% CI
[− 0.13, 0.078]). This effect is more negative than the
effect of ‘supplier’ (F(1,2419) = 4.62, p = 0.032). Vignettes
with ‘silent complicity’ caused respondents to be 19.1 per-
centage points less likely to perceive the MNE as being
involved in a human rights violation (p < 0.001, 95% CI
[− 0.22, 0.17]). The effect of ‘silent complicity’ was
substantially more negative than the effects of ‘supplier’
(F(1,2419) = 81, p < 0.001) and ‘beneficial complicity’
(F(1,2419) = 48, p < 0.001). These results demonstrate that
proximity weighs heavily on public judgments: notwith-
standing arguments that MNEs have obligations to address
human rights abuses by suppliers and host states, the public
strongly discounts these more distant relationships.
We now turn to due diligence. Compared with the base-
line of ‘no due diligence,’ when vignettes stated that the
MNE learned about potential abuses but did not take any
action, respondents were 6.6 percentage points more likely
to judge the MNE as being involved in a human rights vio-
lation (p < 0.001, 95% CI [0.045, 0.087]). When vignettes
described the MNE as trying to prevent the abuse, people
were 14.7percentagepoints less likely to perceive involve-
ment (p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.17, − 0.12]). The magnitude of
this effect is substantial and demonstrates that attempting to
prevent abuses shifts perceptions, even if those attempts are
ultimately unsuccessful.
To understand the reasoning underlying these effects
more fully, we draw on the open-ended responses. We induc-
tively coded the justifications and uncovered four distinct
reasons given that pointed to elements of the type of MNE
involvement. Table3 reports the frequency of each type
and provides an example response. The most common type
of justification linked to involvement emphasized respon-
siveness (38.7%). As shown in the example, respondents
explained their judgments in terms of the actions that the
MNE did, or did not, take in the context of potential abuses.
The frequency of this form of reasoning reinforces our find-
ings on due diligence and reveals the salience of mitigating
efforts by an MNE for public judgments of its conduct.
Beyond responsiveness, we find that 7.7% of responses
were justified by pointing to the mere association (or lack
of association) between the MNE and the perpetrator. Those
using a logic of association were just as likely to judge the
MNE as being involved compared with those that did not use
this reasoning. By contrast, we find that 10.1% of answers
indicated that respondents assessed involvement in causal
terms, explicitly stating their inference about whether or
not the MNE caused the abuse to justify their responses.
Fig. 2 Type of involvement
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1 3
Responses that expressed a causal criterion judged the MNE
as being involved in a human rights violation 13 percentage
points less often than when causal justifications were not
present. These results suggest that the extent of individuals’
use of each of these criteria constitutes a key element of the
way we can expect the public to respond to MNE conduct.
Finally, some respondents stated that it was inappropri-
ate for MNEs to be considered involved in a human rights
violation because at least some human rights, in their view,
were the purview of states, not business (3.3%).
MNE Characteristics
Examining characteristics of the focal firm, reported in
Fig.3, we find only a very modest effect of the size and
power of the MNE. Vignettes that described the MNE as
‘small’ and ‘just starting out’ resulted in a 3.4 percent-
agepoints decrease in the probability that respondents
judged the MNE to be involved in a human rights viola-
tion, compared with those that described the company as
‘large’ and having ‘a lot of influence’ (p < 0.001, 95% CI
Table 3 Justifications related to type of involvement
Percentage of codable responses. N = 848. Responses could have multiple codes. p-value from a test of the difference in means of the
DVbetween responses with the code, and those without
Code Examples %
with code
(mean DV)
Responsive “This company tried to do the ethical thing and protect the community and the
environment by attempting to block the government from doing damage. No
violations were committed”
38.7 0.64 0.61 0.47
Association “It benefitted from discrimination which means they took part in said discrimina-
tion. Ergo they violated human rights”
7.7 0.69 0.62 0.24
Causal “They did not directly employ the kids…” 10.1 0.51 0.64 0.03
Appropriate “It is not that company’s job to take political action when they themselves are not
violating anybody’s rights. A small clothing company is not responsible for the
government’s actions”
3.3 0.00 0.64 < 0.01
Fig. 3 Focal firm characteristics
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
[− 0.051, − 0.017]). We further examine if the effects of dis-
tinct relationships and due diligence are larger or smaller
depending on MNE size and power. We do not find that size
conditions the ‘supplier’ (ACIE = − 0.15, p = 0.54, 95% CI
[− 0.062, 0.032]), ‘beneficial complicity’ (ACIE = − 0.035,
p = 0.15, 95% CI [− 0.081, 0.012]), or ‘silent complicity’
treatments (ACIE = − 0.032, p = 0.19, 95% CI [− 0.080,
0.016]). Similarly, we do not find that size conditions the
‘no action’ (ACIE = 0.024, p = 0.24, 95% CI [− 0.16, 0.065])
or ‘trying to prevent’ treatments (ACIE = 0.022, p = 0.30,
95% CI [− 0.020, 0.064]). Therefore, the large effects that
we find on the relationship and due diligence elements were
similarly present in vignettes with large and small MNEs.
Contrary to our expectations, we did not find significant
effects of MNE industry on perceptions of MNE involve-
ment in human rights abuses. There were no statistically
significant differences between vignettes that included an oil
company and those that included a solar company. Similarly,
there were no differences among the three manufacturing
sectors (see Appendix Table6 for all comparisons). This
result suggests that people do not make strong inferences
about a firm’s involvement based on the track record of its
broader industry.
Figure4 reports the effects of the different types of abuse
and of the local views on those abuses. First, we find that
vignettes that included the destruction of a sacred site were
the least likely to be considered cases of involvement in
human rights violations, compared with all other abuses (see
Appendix Table6 for all pairwise comparisons). The effect
sizes were large: vignettes with ‘destruction of a sacred site’
were 16 percentage points less likely to be perceived as cases
of MNE involvement, compared with vignettes that included
‘child labor’ (p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.19, − 0.13]). Second,
we find that MNEs were 13 percentage points less likely
to be perceived to be involved in a human rights violation
when vignettes included ‘violent repression of protests,’ as
opposed to ‘child labor’ (p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.16, − 0.10]).
After the destruction of a sacred site, violent repression of
protests resulted in the least probability of respondents per-
ceiving MNE involvement. This result is surprising because
such an abuse involves both physical injury and deprivation
of freedom of expression.
Third, we find that ‘failure to pay a living wage’
(b = − 0.052, p = 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.082, − 0.022]),
‘contamination of a community’s land’ (b = − 0.071,
p < 0.001, 95% CI [− 0.10, − 0.04]), and ‘discrimination
against an ethnic minority’ (b = − 0.055, p < 0.001, 95% CI
[− 0.084, 0.026]) all resulted in people being less likely
to perceive the MNE as being involved in a human rights
abuse, compared with ‘child labor.’ However, the negative
effects were smaller than those for ‘violent repression of
protests’ or ‘destruction of a sacred site.
Fig. 4 Abuses
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1 3
Turning to the local views of the abuse, we find only a
modest effect. When vignettes indicated that people in the
country believed that a business or government can some-
times take such an action (and, so, that the relevant behavior
was permissible under local norms), it caused respondents
to be 3.4 percentage points less likely to judge that the MNE
was involved in a human rights abuse (p < 0.001, 95% CI
[− 0.052, − 0.017]).
These results are striking, considering that all of the
abuses included in the vignettes are violations of inter-
nationally recognized human rights. Furthermore, given
that these effects are conditional on the other elements of
the vignettes, including the relationship, it is notable that
the type of abuse shifts judgments of MNE involvement
so strongly, and so much more than local views regarding
the permissibility of the behavior. To better understand the
reasons underlying these results, we turn once again to the
responses to the open-ended questions (Table4). We induc-
tively coded these responses and uncovered a set of recur-
ring justifications related to the nature of the abuse. By far,
the most common justifications described the categorical fit
of an abuse with the respondent’s understanding of human
rights. These responses simply stated that a particular abuse
was, or was not, a human rights violation, without provid-
ing additional elaboration (19.1%). Much less often (6.4%),
people referred to what they believed to be the content of
legal norms—stating that some action was or was not illegal
and, therefore, was, or was not, a human rights violation.
The relative scarcity of legal references suggests that the law
is not a highly salient reference point for the public when
considering human rights. It also suggests an explanation for
why scenarios with abuses that violated cultural rights are so
strongly discounted by the public, even though these rights
are recognized in international treaties (further analysis of
codes by abuse in Appendix Table8).
Deontological justifications that associated human rights
with universally applicable moral standards were also com-
mon in the responses (14.5%). These respondents perceived
MNE involvement in a human rights violation as a moral
issue—if they did not believe any moral rules were broken,
they judged the MNE not to be involved in a violation. When
people judged the problem on these terms, they were 26
percentage points more likely to perceive the MNE as being
involved in a violation. Another set of justifications was con-
sequentialist and highlighted the effects of the abuse, or lack
thereof (3.9%). When respondents evaluated scenarios on
consequentialist terms, they were also substantially more
likely to judge the MNE as being involved in a violation
(26%). A smaller set of responses pointed to specific values,
either stating that American companies should (or should
not) follow American values abroad (1.2%), or referencing
local norms (5.2%).
These results indicate that diffuse informal understand-
ings of human rights and notions of morally appropriate
behavior are central to public judgments of MNE conduct.
Our findings reveal a gap between American adults’ com-
mon views of morally acceptable corporate conduct and the
dominant normative positions expressed in soft-law instru-
ments and in the literature. Furthermore, although these
results complement theories of attribution of corporate irre-
sponsibility (Lange & Washburn, 2012), they also show that
judgments of involvement in human rights violations are a
special case of perceptions of unethical corporate behavior.
Politically Active Respondents
The analyses above reveal the factors that do, and do not,
influence public judgments of MNE involvement in human
rights abuses. However, many of the individuals in our
sample may be unlikely to take action in response to their
Table 4 Justifications related to abuses
Percentage of codable responses. N = 848. Responses could have multiple codes. p-value from a test of the difference in means of the
DVbetween responses with the code, and those without
Code Example %
Mean DV
with code
Mean DV
Categorical fit “Destroying a sacred site does not involve human rights” 19.1 0.62 0.63 0.91
Legal reference “Using kids as employees is illegal” 6.4 0.72 0.62 0.13
Deontological “Discrimination is wrong, and should not be tolerated” 14.5 0.85 0.59 < 0.01
Consequential “They are endangering the lives of people by letting contaminants go into
areas that sustain life and are willing to let the contaminants damage the
3.9 0.87 0.61 < 0.01
American’ values “Company A may not be in violation in that country but as an American
company it is”
1.2 1.00 0.62 < 0.01
Local norms “If the people are aware of this practice and appear to accept it then the
oil company was acting on the approval of the country's government. No
violations took place”
5.2 0.39 0.64 < 0.01
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
judgments. It could be that, when we focus on those who are
more politically engaged, the effects that we found do not
hold. If this is the case, our results may provide a misleading
account of when MNEs may face public pressure over their
ties to human rights abuses. To investigate this possibility,
we analyze a subsample of respondents who are politically
active. We create two indices: Political Action Towards
Business and Political Action Towards the State (details in
Appendix, Sect.Political Action Analysis). We split each of
these indices at the median and report results for each group
in Fig.5. For those who score ‘high’ on both indices, our
results are substantively similar to the results for the entire
sample. Perceptions of MNE involvement in human rights
abuses are strongly affected by the relationships between the
MNE and the perpetrator, as well as the extent to which the
MNE engaged in due diligence, even in groups that are most
active in politics. We provide a full account of the minor
differences between these groups in the Appendix. Overall,
this analysis shows that the substantive patterns of judgment
that we find in the general population hold in those who are
politically active.
Scholarly research on business and human rights points to
corporations’ efforts to avoid public opprobrium as playing
a crucial role in MNEs’ human rights governance (Arnold,
2010; Nolan, 2014). Similarly, the most prominent legal
instruments assume a link between broadly held views of
Fig. 5 Political action
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The ‘Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness Involvement inHuman Rights…
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corporate responsibility, public reactions to noncompliance
with those views, and corporate human rights conduct (Rug-
gie, 2008a, para. 54). Scholars and practitioners agree that
reputational damage can influence profitability, and thus
create an incentive for compliance. However, there is stark
disagreement as to how likely it is that sufficient reputational
damage will occur when MNEs are involved in human rights
violations, and there are many doubts about the reliability
of public pressure (Clarke & Boersma, 2017; Neureiter &
Bhattacharya, 2021; Seidman, 2007). When the public does
not judge an MNE to be involved in a violation, we may
not be able to rely on reputational pressure alone to punish
MNEs when their conduct fails to conform with interna-
tional human rights standards. Moreover, if MNEs repeat-
edly escape public backlash when involved in human rights
violations, instrumental motivations to prevent harm may
erode over time. Therefore, in order to understand when, and
to what extent, the threat of reputational damage will under-
pin human rights governance, it is necessary to determine
when the public is likely to conclude that an MNE has been
involved in a human rights violation.
This article provides the first systematic empirical
account of how the ‘court of public opinion’ judges MNE
involvement in human rights violations. Our findings
uncover substantial gaps between the judgments of Ameri-
can adults and the prescriptions of soft law and normative
arguments. By revealing this gap, this article contributes to
our understanding of the limitations of the current interna-
tional legal framework for business and human rights, which
relies heavily on reputational pressure.
We further contribute to the business and human rights
literature by offering detailed evidence regarding which fac-
tors influence public judgments. We identify specific factors
that render an episode unlikely to provoke negative public
responses, such as those that involve silent complicity or
violations of cultural rights. We also find that the public
judges acts committed by suppliers differently from those
committed by subsidiaries, in contrast with the results of
previous studies (Hartmann & Moeller, 2014). These find-
ings point to contexts in which governance structures that
depend on reputation are less likely to induce compliance
with international norms. They suggest a need to critically
evaluate whether, in light of muted public responses, there
will be sufficient pressure on corporations to substantiate a
‘business case’ for compliance in specific circumstances.
By contrast, we also identify factors that render an epi-
sode more likely to provoke a negative response, such as
those that involve child labor or when an MNE fails to take
action based on information gathered during a due diligence
process. This last finding suggests that, as MNEs manage
human rights risks proactively through due diligence, they
also reduce the risk of being pressured by the public. It fur-
ther suggests that soft law may be reasonably appropriate in
imposing due diligence obligations on MNEs, despite the
fact that this is also the focus of most of the recent efforts to
regulate business human rights conduct at the national level.
This paper makes additional contributions by further link-
ing the study of business and human rights with research that
seeks to understand how stakeholders respond to episodes
of corporate social irresponsibility (Kölbel etal., 2017; Lin-
Hi & Müller, 2013; Wang & Li, 2019). Researchers have
called for greater attention to stakeholders’ expectations
and understandings of corporate irresponsibility (Nardella
etal., 2020). Human rights violations are an important type
of irresponsible conduct (Giuliani etal., 2014), and one that
has deep legal and normative roots. Theories of corporate
social irresponsibility are incomplete if they cannot account
for attributions of involvement in human rights violations.
Congruent with theoretical work on corporate social irre-
sponsibility, we find that respondents consider the severity
of the perceived harm, use moral reasoning, and are attentive
to the causal role of the MNE (Lange & Washburn, 2012).
We also report results that are not anticipated in the extant
literature on responses to corporate irresponsibility. First,
given the centrality of the power to cause and prevent harms,
both in the business and human rights literature and in stud-
ies of perceptions of corporate social irresponsibility, our
expectation was that the public would judge the actions of
large and powerful MNEs substantively differently from
small ones. According to influential work on perceptions of
corporate social irresponsibility, firm size plays an impor-
tant role in assessments of causality: individuals are more
likely to deem a firm causally responsible for an undesirable
outcome if the size of the firm and the extent of the harm
are congruent (Lange & Washburn, 2012). Our evidence,
however, suggests that the public may not be overly con-
cerned with size, or may perceive MNEs of all sizes to be
sufficiently powerful: in our study, MNE size has only a
minimal influence on judgments of involvement in human
rights violations. Hence, our findings support the need for
collective efforts to establish causal links when these are not
obvious, not just to the organizations involved (Reinecke &
Ansari, 2016) but also to the general public.
Second, given the established literature on reputational
spillovers (Barnett & King, 2008; Jonsson etal., 2009;
Zavyalova etal., 2012), we expected that the industry of the
focal MNE would have a substantial effect on public judg-
ments. If this had been the case, it would have indicated that
soft-law approaches are most appropriate in high-salience
industries. Our evidence is not, however, congruent with this
view. We speculate that this may be because the public does
not have sufficient knowledge of the human rights records of
different industries, and therefore does not generalize from
industry to the individual MNEs. Theoretically, this find-
ing suggests scope conditions for theories of reputational
spillover—if involvement in human rights violations does
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
not create spillovers across MNEs in the same industry, other
categories of unethical behavior may similarly not trigger
spillovers. Practically, in light of our results, we should not
expect the public to be less demanding towards a solar power
company than an oil company, for example.
Third, we uncover factors that have a significant influence on
attributions of irresponsibility that have not been widely studied.
These include the importance of due diligence in shaping pub-
lic views, which extends related concepts, such as intentional-
ity, hypocrisy, and rectification (Chen etal., 2020; Clark etal.,
2021). Furthermore, our coding of the responses to open-ended
questions suggests that the fit between the harm and lay notions
of what counts as a human right played a substantial role in
people’s judgments. This finding shows that, when it comes to
human rights violations, the categorization of harms plays a role
beyond factors identified in the literature, such as severity. If
activists attempt to frame irresponsible practices as human rights
violations, they may fail due to the incongruence with observers’
prior notions of rights. This result has implications both for the
study of human rights and for the study of corporate irresponsi-
bility more generally, as schemas for the categorization of harms
may condition reactions to corporate misconduct.
Our study has limitations. First, our sample is drawn
entirely from a single country. We chose to focus on the U.S.
because it is a country where the public is likely to be suffi-
ciently free and powerful to influence the behavior of MNEs.
However, the public in other countries may have system-
atically different views that future research should explore.
Future research should analyze not only the views of adults
in a range of countries in the global North and South, but
also the views of people under 18years of age. Second, our
study only began the process of uncovering the mechanisms
underlying public judgments. The coding of the open-ended
responses suggests that the use of specific criteria, such as
equating involvement with causation, plays a large role in
influencing public judgments. Furthermore, the relatively
rare reference to legal instruments suggests that, in this con-
text, the law may have less of an expressive power (Sun-
stein, 1996). Future research can productively analyze the
processes by which members of the public make judgments
about MNEs and human rights. Third, we do not study how
public judgments translate into public pressure on MNEs,
either through individual action or through social movement
organizations. Research suggests that MNEs value their pub-
lic standing (Diermeier, forthcoming), that public evalua-
tions of companies can influence consumer behavior (Kam
& Deichert, 2020), and that public opinion forms part of
political opportunity structures for social movements (Soule,
2009). More work, however, will be needed to completely
theorize and empirically examine the process by which the
public makes judgments about an MNE’s human rights prac-
tices, how those judgments influence pressure on MNEs, and
how that pressure ultimately influences corporate practices.
Our study has implications for practice. First, it suggests that
human rights organizations and policymakers need to consider
the types of episodes that will render public pressure less likely
to play an enforcement role. Recognizing these limits can push
activists to search for alternative means of enforcement or, when
possible, to frame events in ways that take public judgments
into account. For instance, arguing that an MNE did not take
action to address a potential risk is likely a potent way of shaping
public responses, while arguing that an MNE remained silent
in the face of an abuse is unlikely to stimulate public pressure.
While our findings suggest limits to when the public will judge
MNEs to be involved in human rights, our results also indicate
that human rights advocates should not be overly preoccupied
by perceptions of local norms of acceptable practice: an MNE
that violated rights recognized in international legal standards
will only have its involvement discounted in a minor way if local
norms differ. In addition, our results suggest that human rights
advocates can expect the public to put pressure on MNEs of
disparate sizes and in a wide range of industries.
Second, our study provides guidance to MNE managers
who need to build a ‘business case’ for compliance with
human rights norms within their organizations. Our find-
ings suggest that these managers can point to the importance
of adhering to internationally recognized norms even when
local norms are permissive. Additionally, small MNEs are
only given a minor reprieve and are nearly as likely to be
judged to be involved in human rights violations as large
firms. Finally, when MNEs attempt to prevent potential
human rights impacts, they will not only be complying with
legal instruments, but they will also be credited by the pub-
lic. However, managers need to recognize that their firms
may face less pressure from the public when the perpetrators
are more distant, and when identified risks involve certain
types of rights. In such circumstances, instrumental reasons
to improve human rights practices may therefore be insuf-
ficient, and managers may have to assume obligations with
less obvious material benefits.
Our study underscores the importance of taking the work-
ings of the ‘court of public opinion’ seriously, and of under-
standing when it is more or less likely to contribute to pres-
sure on MNEs to improve their human rights performance.
We have built our study using the standards set in soft law, as
well as the rich normative literature on business and human
rights. We do not set out to resolve ethical debates nor chal-
lenge the desirability of policies with our findings. Rather,
we identify gaps between policies and ethical arguments, on
the one hand, and the general public’s views, on the other.
Yet, the public’s view should not be thought of as static,
especially as human rights norms evolve over time. Future
research should explore how public judgments may shift, so
as to better harness public pressure to bring MNE practice
closer to normative goals.
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1 3
This section of the Appendix contains Tables5, 6, 7, and 8.
Table 5 Main results
Robust standard errors clustered by respondent in parentheses
*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001
Relationship (omitted = subsidiary)
Supplier − 0.0753***
Beneficial complicity − 0.102***
Silent complicity − 0.191***
Due diligence (omitted = no due diligence)
No action 0.0660***
Tried to prevent − 0.147***
Abuse (omitted = employ child labor)
Pay less than living wage − 0.0521***
Contaminate land − 0.0711***
Destroy sacred site − 0.163***
Violently repress protest − 0.130***
Discriminate against minorities − 0.0545***
Local view (omitted = should not)
Can sometimes − 0.0343***
Size/power (omitted = large)
Small − 0.0338***
Industry (omitted = oil)
Clothing − 0.0182
Auto − 0.00962
Solar − 0.00889
Bicycle − 0.00630
Constant 0.829***
Observations 12,100
R-squared 0.066
Table 6 Comparisons of all industries and abuses
F(1, 2419). Not all hypotheses were prespecified (see analysis plan).
We report all for completeness
Null hypothesis F p
BLiving wage = BContaminating 1.52 0.2184
BLiving wage = BSacred Site 46.96 < 0.001
BLiving wage = BProtest 23.66 < 0.001
BLiving wage = BDiscrimination 0.03 0.87
BContaminating = BSacred Site 33.7 < 0.001
BContaminating = BProtests 13.6 < 0.001
BContaminating = BDiscrimination 1.17 0.28
BSacred Site = BProtests 3.84 0.05
BSacred Site = BDiscrimination 46 < 0.001
BProtests = BDiscrimination 24 < 0.001
BClothing = BAuto 0.38 0.54
BClothing = BSolar 0.45 0.50
BClothing = BBicycle 0.73 0.39
BAuto = BSolar 0.00 0.96
BAuto = BBicycle 0.06 0.81
BSolar = BBicycle 0.03 0.85
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
Robustness Checks
Attention andSpeed
We included four attention checks. All the checks were mul-
tiple-choice questions with one correct answer and four filler
responses. The first check was presented after the instruc-
tions and probed if the respondent recalled the topic of the
survey. Respondents who failed this check were reminded
of the topic. The remaining three attention checks occurred
after the first three vignettes. They asked the respondents
to recall one element of the vignette—the size of the focal
firm, the industry, or the abuse—presented in random order.
In our replication archive, we include analyses of mod-
els with all respondents who completed the survey (even
those who failed all attention checks, 2795 respondents,
N = 13,975) and only those who passed all attention checks
(1392 respondents, N = 6960). As expected, the effect sizes
are larger for attentive respondents, but the overall pattern
of responses does not change. In the replication archive, we
also include analyses of the respondents removing those who
were ‘speeders,’ defined as the 5th or 10th percentiles in sur-
vey speed. Again, we see the expected larger effect sizes for
attentive respondents, but the same overall pattern of results.
Order ofPresentation
We did not randomize the order of all elements of the
vignettes in order to maintain the narrative flow. We
did, however, randomize the order of the last part of the
Table 7 Political action
Would never
(= 1) (%)
(= 2) (%)
Have in the
distant past
(= 3) (%)
Have in the
last year
(= 4) (%)
Action towards business index (mean 8.2, SD 3.2)
Signed a petition related to a business 30 47 12 11
Participated in a protest or demonstration about a business’ actions 48 42 6 4
Boycotted certain products for political, ethical, or environmental reasons 32 30 16 22
Deliberately bought certain products for political, ethical, or environmental reasons 34 32 13 21
Action towards the state index (mean 8.3, SD 3.2)
Signed a petition related to a government policy 23 37 18 22
Participated in a protest or demonstration about a government policy 49 36 9 6
Donated money or raised funds for a political activity 44 27 13 16
Contacted or attempted to contact a politician or civil servant to express your views 33 35 14 18
Table 8 Codes by abuse
Percentage of codable responses by the abuse included in the vignette. Overall, 152 of 1000 responses were not codable
All vignettes
Child labor (%) Living wage (%) Contamina-
tion (%)
Sacred site
destruction (%)
Protest (%) Discrimi-
Responsive 38.7 34.0 35.4 45.3 36.3 40.0 42.0
Association 7.7 9.5 5.5 5.4 6.7 9.6 10.1
Causal 10.1 6.8 5.5 12.2 12.6 16.3 8.4
Appropriate 3.3 1.4 3.1 2.7 3.0 5.9 4.2
Categorical 19.1 17.7 21.3 14.2 22.2 16.3 23.5
Legal 6.4 13.6 11.0 2.7 4.4 3.0 1.7
Deontological 14.5 20.4 20.1 8.1 15.6 10.4 10.9
Consequential 3.9 4.1 3.1 11.5 0.7 3.0 0.0
American values 1.2 0.7 1.2 0.7 1.5 3.0 0.0
Local norms 5.2 10.9 4.9 6.1 5.2 2.2 0.8
Other 5.5 4.8 4.9 3.4 5.9 6.7 8.4
Number of codable
848 147 164 148 135 135 119
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The ‘Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness Involvement inHuman Rights…
1 3
vignette—with half the respondents seeing the due diligence
information before local views, and half seeing the vignettes
in the opposite order. In the replication archive, we include
analyses of order effects. We find that the results are largely
unchanged by order of presentation.
Our method for estimating the AMCEs assumed that there
are no carryover effects, meaning that the results are stable
across the rounds (i.e., the effects of treatments in the first
round are the same as those in the later rounds). In our repli-
cation archive, we report the results of our main analyses by
round to investigate carryover effects. We include the most
conservative approach to carryover effects, which involves
only using data from the first round.
While these estimates are less precise, we find the same
support for all analyses, with one exception (the difference
in the effect of ‘supplier’ or ‘subsidiary’ is not statistically
Although our sample closely resembles the U.S. population,
it is underrepresented in people with less than a high school
education and people who identify as Hispanic. Such unrep-
resentativeness will only bias our results if these attributes
interact with our treatments. As an additional robustness
check, we estimate our main models weighting our sample
to approximate the U.S. population more closely; we find
that the results are unchanged. We include these results in
the replication archive.
Political Action Analysis
To measure each respondent’s past political action, we
crafted a set of questions drawing on a similar block in
the General Social Survey (GSS). To create the indices of
political action, we took the sum of responses to each block
of four questions (Action Towards Business, Cronbach's
α = 0.81; Action Towards the State, Cronbach’s α = 0.79).
For those who report high (above the median) levels of
political action towards firms, in the last year: 37% report
boycotting, 36% report purchasing a product because of the
company’s labor or environmental record, 18% report sign-
ing a petition, and 7% report participating in a protest. For
those who report high levels of political action towards the
state, in the last year: 37% report signing a petition, 32%
contacting an official, 28% raising funds or donating money,
and 11% participating in a protest.
Figure5 in the main text reports the results by group.
There is a difference in the overall fit of the models
comparing high/low on political action towards business
(omnibus F (1,2419) = 2.86, p < 0.001) and high/low on
political action towards the state (omnibus F(1,2419) = 2.52,
p < 0.001).
Examining specific treatments helps us to under-
stand these differences. The effect of silent complicity
is more negative on those who have taken more politi-
cal action towards firms (ACIE = − 0.057, p = 0.029,
95% CI [− 0.11, − 0.006]) and the state (ACIE = − 0.072,
p = 0.005, 95% CI [− 0.12, 0.022]). Those with histories
of greater political action towards business are even more
strongly affected by firms taking action to prevent an abuse
(ACIE = − 0.065, p = 0.006, 95% CI [− 0.11, − 0.019]), but
we do not find the same difference in effect for those who are
more politically active towards the state (ACIE = 0.021,
p = 0.37, 95% CI [− 0.067, 0.025]). While these findings
reveal differences, they do not suggest that the judgments of
politically active people are more aligned with soft law and
normative arguments.
In terms of abuses, we observe less of a difference
between child labor and violent repression of protests for
both those who are more politically active towards business
(ACIE = 0.087, p = 0.005, 95% CI [0.026, 0.015]) and the
state (ACIE = 0.074, p = 0.017, 95% CI [0.013, 0.13]). This
result is expected, considering that the politically active
subsamples are more likely to have taken part in protests
themselves. Finally, we observe some differences in the role
of industry across the two groups: those who score higher in
political action are more likely to perceive that an oil com-
pany is involved in a human rights abuse than clothing or
automobile manufacturers. Yet, the results of neither group
fit the overall pattern that would be expected if people used
the human rights record of an industry to make inferences
about MNE involvement.
Open‑Ended Responses
Coding Guide
To develop our codes, each co-author read a small sample of
responses and inductively coded them based on themes that
emerged. We iterated this process, identifying themes and
relating them to the literature. Over time, two broad areas of
interest emerged: evaluations of the relationship and evalu-
ations of the abuses. We then created a set of definitions for
the codes (explained below).
We then drew a new random sample of 500 respond-
ents and the authors hand coded the responses to the two
open-ended questions, providing data for a total of 1000
responses. Where there was uncertainty in a code, all three
co-authors reviewed the code and came to a consensus. We
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M.Amengual et al.
1 3
allowed for multiple codes per response. Our definitions for
each code and decision rules are reported below.
Evaluation ofRelationship
Causal role: These responses point to a perceived causal
role, or lack of causal role, in the abuse. The assessment
can go in either direction, but the key is that the respond-
ent’s criterion is causality. We include causal role when
the response references “control,” which implies causal
action by the principal. We take pronouns like “they” as
referring to the MNE.
Responsiveness: How the MNE responds to potential
or actual human rights abuses. This includes a lack of
responsiveness, in which the MNE is judged to be indif-
ferent to the harm to others. Included here are statements
that the company had the capacity to act, but did not. It
also includes actions that MNEs take to prevent an abuse.
These responses differ from the ones above in that they
do not focus on causation of the abuse, but how the MNE
acts within the context of its relationship.
Association: These statements define involvement sim-
ply through association. This includes doing business in
a country that has a poor human rights record. This also
includes benefitting from the actions of others.
Appropriate role: These statements point to the appro-
priate role of business. This includes statements that it
is the government/state, not business, that is responsible
for human rights protection.
Evaluation ofAbuses
Categorical Fit: Responses stating that something is, or
is not, a human rights violation, without elaboration of
the reasoning.
Legal: Responses about what counts as a human rights
violation explicitly or implicitly referencing legal struc-
tures. This includes statements that action is “illegal” or
that cite what respondents believe are laws (e.g., busi-
nesses have to pay the minimum wage). These references
can be both positive (it is illegal, therefore a human rights
violation) or negative (nothing illegal about the action,
therefore not a human rights violation).
Deontological: These responses evaluate the abuse in
terms of universal norms or values. They suggest the use
of moral criteria for decision making.
Consequential: These statements talk about the conse-
quences of the abuse.
American” values: Responses explicitly note the values
of the home country—in this case, the United States.
They explain their judgments by virtue of shared Ameri-
can values.
Local norms: Responses that reference what they believe
are norms of appropriate behavior in the country where
the abuse took place.
Additional Codes
Other: An interpretable response that does not fit one of
the above codes.
Not Codable: A response that cannot be interpreted to
be coded.
See Appendix Fig.6.
Fig. 6 Instructions
There are often reports in the media about American companies doing business overseas.
Sometimes people say that American companies are involved in human rights violations in other
In this survey, we will show you five short scenarios involving American companies. Each scenario
will be different, although some elements of the scenarios will repeat.
For each scenario, we want to know whether you believe that the company was involved in a
human rights violation.
After each scenario, we may also ask you a question about the scenario to be sure that you have read
It is important to pay attention to all of the information in the scenarios so that we can accurately
understand your views.
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The ‘Court ofPublic Opinion:’ Public Perceptions ofBusiness Involvement inHuman Rights…
1 3
Data availability
Upon publication, all data and code will be posted in the
OSF public data repository. The full transcript of the survey
is included in the pre-registration, whichhas been posted on
OSF: https:// osf. io/ 56dnp/
Acknowledgements We would like to thank Elisa Giuliani, Judith
Schrempf-Stirling and colleagues at the University of Oxford for their
helpful suggestions.
Conflict of interest The authors have no relevant financial or non-fi-
nancial interests to disclose.
Informed Consent Informed consent was obtained from all individual
participants included in the study.
Research Involving Human Participants This research was approved
by the Saïd Business School Departmental Research Ethics Committee
(SBS DREC) prior to data collection. Reference number: SSH_SBS_
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attri-
bution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adapta-
tion, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long
as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source,
provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes
were made. The images or other third party material in this article are
included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated
otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in
the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not
permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will
need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a
copy of this licence, visit http:// creat iveco mmons. org/ licen ses/ by/4. 0/.
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Darnella Frazer, a teenage witness to a fatal police encounter, used social media to share her cell phone video footage capturing a white police officer casually kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed Black man named George Floyd for nearly nine minutes. Her video rapidly went viral, sparking civil unrest across the United States (US) and protests around the world. ¹ Independent experts of the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council came together to issue a joint statement condemning ‘systemic racism’ and ‘state sponsored racial violence’ in the US. ² George Floyd was not the first unarmed Black person to die in police custody under questionable circumstances, ³ but his murder motivated many to confront the reality of racism in American society. A broad section of the business community reacted to the civil unrest in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd with solidarity statements denouncing racism and pledges to promote racial equality. ⁴ Brands rushed to embrace the previously untouchable #BlackLivesMatter movement in marketing campaigns. Business leaders expressed interested in evaluating how particular policies and practices operate in ways that serve to promote racial discrimination or perpetuate racial inequality.
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In this conceptual article, we argue that defining corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate social irresponsibility (CSI) as opposite constructs produces a lack of clarity between responsible and irresponsible acts. Furthermore, we contend that the treatment of the CSR and CSI concepts as opposites de-emphasizes the value of CSI as a stand-alone construct. Thus, we reorient the CSI discussion to include multiple aspects that current conceptualizations have not adequately accommodated. We provide an in-depth exploration of how researchers define CSI and both identify and analyze three important gray zones between CSR and CSI: (a) the role of harm and benefit, (b) the role of the actor and intentionality, and (c) the role of rectification. We offer these gray zones as factors contributing to the present lack of conceptual clarity of the term CSI, as a concept in its own right, leading to difficulties that researchers and managers experience in categorizing CSI acts as distinct from CSR.
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In the face of pressure from civil society, unions and consumers to improve labour standards for the workers producing their goods, companies at the helm of global garment supply chains have made commitments to pay living wages within their supply chains. Harnessing insights from the critical political economy literature on corporate social responsibility (CSR), we investigate the actions of garment companies to meet these commitments. We do so through analysis of original data from a survey of 20 leading garment companies, which we co-developed in 2018-2019, as well as publicly available information for garment companies and relevant multi-stakeholder initiatives. Based on this data, we argue there is very little evidence to suggest companies have made meaningful progress towards achieving commitments to pay living wages in their supply chains, challenging widespread assumptions about CSR's benefits to workers. We argue that in the face of mounting evidence of CSR ineffectiveness, including our own, there is a need for new political economy research into the benefits that companies derive from CSR commitments that deflect attention from their core business models and the uneven value distribution within global supply chains.
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States and non-state actors, such as business organizations and NGOs, have varying preferences among regulatory options in business and human rights. Some actors prefer soft law governance while others advocate for legally binding solutions at the national and international levels. In this essay, I explore some of the factors that may explain why state and non-state actors hold these diverse preferences. I conclude that while some of these preferences may be attributable to the unique advantages of soft law or hard law, other preferences likely depend on the effects produced by the interaction of both types of law within the broader regulatory landscape.
Comparing levels of discrimination across countries can provide a window into large-scalesocial and political factors often described as the root of discrimination. Because of difficulties inmeasurement, however, little is established about variation in hiring discrimination across countries.We address this gap through a formal meta-analysis of 97 field experiments of discriminationincorporating more than 200,000 job applications in nine countries in Europe and North America. Wefind significant discrimination against nonwhite natives in all countries in our analysis; discriminationagainst white immigrants is present but low. However, discrimination rates vary strongly by country:In high-discrimination countries, white natives receive nearly twice the callbacks of nonwhites; inlow-discrimination countries, white natives receive about 25 percent more. France has the highestdiscrimination rates, followed by Sweden. We find smaller differences among Great Britain, Canada,Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States, and Germany. These findings challenge severalconventional macro-level theories of discrimination.
Recent corporate social initiatives (CSIs) have garnered criticisms from a wide range of audiences due to perceived inconsistencies. Some critics use the label “woke” when CSIs are perceived as inconsistent with the firm’s purpose. Other critics use the label “woke washing” when CSIs are perceived as inconsistent with the firm’s practices or values. I will argue that this derogatory use of woke is stigmatizing, leads to claims of hypocrisy, and can cause stakeholder backlash. I connect this process to our own field by considering inconsistencies in our organizations and in our teaching that could garner similar criticisms. After describing the stigmatization process, I consider the moral implications of inconsistencies for CSIs and draw parallels to our field. I end by suggesting next steps for our field in response to the stigmatization of CSIs and to guard against the stigmatization of our own work.
How can we elicit honest responses in surveys? Conjoint analysis has become a popular tool to address social desirability bias (SDB), or systematic survey misreporting on sensitive topics. However, there has been no direct evidence showing its suitability for this purpose. We propose a novel experimental design to identify conjoint analysis’s ability to mitigate SDB. Specifically, we compare a standard, fully randomized conjoint design against a partially randomized design where only the sensitive attribute is varied between the two profiles in each task. We also include a control condition to remove confounding due to the increased attention to the varying attribute under the partially randomized design. We implement this empirical strategy in two studies on attitudes about environmental conservation and preferences about congressional candidates. In both studies, our estimates indicate that the fully randomized conjoint design could reduce SDB for the average marginal component effect (AMCE) of the sensitive attribute by about two-thirds of the AMCE itself. Although encouraging, we caution that our results are exploratory and exhibit some sensitivity to alternative model specifications, suggesting the need for additional confirmatory evidence based on the proposed design.
In recent years, various approaches to transnational regulation of business conduct have evolved as an alternative to the command-and-control model focusing on conduct of domestic businesses and the soft law approach of international human rights law to regulate corporations. On reviewing the potential of five such approaches (i.e., polycentric governance, extraterritorial regulation, proposed international treaty, reform of corporate laws, and rebalancing of trade-investment agreements), this article makes two arguments. First, although polycentric governance is critical to fill regulatory deficits of state-based regulation, this approach should not ignore or weaken further the role and relevance of states in regulating businesses, given the dynamic relation between state-based and other regulatory approaches. Second, greater attention should be paid to nonhuman rights regulatory regimes to change the corporate culture, which tends to externalize human rights issues. The increasing focus on the role of corporate laws and trade-investment agreements should be seen in this context. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Volume 17 is October 2021. Please see for revised estimates.
In this article, we argue that the occurrence, trajectory, and impact of consumer activism are in large part driven by the political environment in which firms operate, particularly their country’s level of polarization and the political makeup of their core customer base. In environments characterized by low levels of political polarization, companies are embroiled in a relatively small number of political controversies, and as a result are rarely the target of consumer activism. Conversely, in highly polarized environments, people’s political sensibilities are easily offended, which leads to a relatively large number of political controversies. These controversies tend to arise along party lines, meaning they elicit a consumer boycott exclusively from one side of the political spectrum. Such partisan boycotts lead people on the other side of the political spectrum to rally around the company at the center of the controversy and purchase more of its products. Whether a company’s sales end up decreasing or increasing depends on the nature of the issue at the heart of the controversy as well as the political beliefs of its core customer base. We conclude by describing how companies can successfully navigate this complex interplay between political polarization, consumer activism, and customers’ political preferences.