Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Krishnamurthy Sriramesh

Committee Member 1

Stacey L. Connaughton

Committee Member 2

Stephanie M. Zywicki

Committee Member 3

Patrice M. Buzzanell

Committee Member 4

Lars Thøger Christensen


Employees have been often overlooked in corporate social responsibility (CSR) literature (Aguilera, Rupp, Williams, & Ganapathi, 2007; May, 2011) despite being regarded as one of the most critical voices that constitute what an organization is and what it does (Morsing & Schultz, 2006; Tompkins, 1987). In particular, there is relatively little research about how employees, as one of the primary stakeholders (Freeman, Jeffrey, & Wicks, 2007), make sense of CSR in their everyday talk, and how such talk informs and shapes the very meanings of organizational CSR (May, 2011). Furthermore, despite the fact that in recent years interest in constructive and constitutive approaches to CSR has increased (see Crane & Glozer, 2016; Schoeneborn & Trittin, 2013), the question of how employees, through their talk and action, may help constitute their organization as socially responsible has gained little scholarly attention. Indeed, a closer look into the literature on CSR and employees suggests that importance of employees in CSR is often taken at its face value, with limited empirical and theoretical insights into why and how employees matter in CSR talk—and CSR action, respectively. Given that CSR is “communicatively constituted in complex and dynamic networks” (Schultz, Castelló, & Morsing, 2013, p. 685), whereby meanings of CSR are being negotiated in an ongoing process of sensemaking among individuals and organizations (Basu & Palazzo, 2008; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005), the question of what role employees play in such meaning construction becomes particularly relevant (May, 2011). Thus, not only may employees and their talk be perceived as one of the core communicative processes through which organizational CSR comes into being, but through, and in, communication, employees may also help “bridge” internal and external dimensions of CSR (May, 2011; May & Roper, 2014). As explained by Morsing, Schultz, and Nielsen (2008), employees can further organizational CSR through their commitment and support for CSR agendas and policies within their organization, which can then be passed onto stakeholders and community members outside their organization. Adopting a communication view on CSR (Schultz et al., 2013) that approaches CSR as communication (e.g., Christensen & Cheney, 2011; Schoeneborn & Trittin, 2013) through, and in, which meanings and values concerning CSR are constructed and come into existence (Basu & Palazzo, 2008; Weick, 1995), this study aims to address such gaps in the literature by exploring the role of employees in CSR. Specifically, this study draws on sensemaking perspective, speech act theory, and communicative constitution of organization (CCO) approach to study how employees construct meanings of CSR, both individually and through interactions with other organizational members. Thereby, it also addresses the overarching question guiding this research: What role may employees play in bringing CSR words into CSR actions? This study employs a qualitative study using two methodologies: a discursive analysis of interviews from multiple organizations and a case study. First, it draws on one-on-one interviews with organizational members working for various companies in the United States to explore the ways in which they create meanings and constructions of CSR, including with respect to the questions of agency in, and ownership of, CSR. The findings speak to the ambiguous and perplexing nature of CSR to which participants respond through negotiation of multiple, and often contested, values that they attribute to CSR. CSR can, then, be regarded as a “value-laden” resource (Deetz, 2003) that acts on employees as much as they themselves act on it. In addition, the findings suggest that employee agency in CSR cannot be studied without taking into consideration other agencies that too make a difference in meaning negotiation process that brings CSR into being. In this process, employee appropriation of CSR often works in retrospection, through meaning construction in terms of previous job experience, while also through future aspirations for CSR, thereby, challenging the notions of control, consistency, and coherency in communication concerning CSR (Schultz et al., 2013). Second, this research uses a case study of a global pharmaceutical company to explore how employees jointly construct CSR informed by their roles. Comparing the latter constructions with how employees are framed in corporate CSR talk, this study explores employees’ ascribed role against their achieved role in bringing organizational CSR into being. Accordingly, this research offers both empirical and theoretical insights into the role of employees in CSR by unpacking diverse meanings and complexities concerning CSR talk and CSR action. As such, this study not only contributes to a better understanding of the nexus between employees and CSR by bringing to focus “localities” in communication in, and through, which CSR emerges, but it also aims to enrich both the body of knowledge and practice of CSR beyond this link.