Blogs & Comment

Are you a stakeholder?

Figuring out who counts is a good start, ethically. But it's only a start.

(Photo: Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty)

When oil spills in a forest, does everybody matter? That’s the question posed by the events recounted in this recent CBC story, ” Wrigley residents voice pipeline spill concerns.”

Apparently, an Enbridge pipeline sprung a leak in the tiny, remote town of Wrigley, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Not surprisingly, residents are unhappy about the spill, and so Enbridge has to figure out not just what to do about it (i.e., how to clean it up), but what to do about the people of Wrigley. More generally, managers at Enbridge have got to figure out, on an ongoing basis, what their obligations are, and to whom those obligations are owed.

There’s an older school of thought (or more likely a caricature of an older school of thought) according to which shareholders are the only ones whose interests really need to be taken seriously. According to this view, an oil company’s managers’ only real obligations are to shareholders. After all, says this view, shareholders own the company, and they’re the ones who (indirectly) hired these managers to make money on their behalf. If anyone else matters, they matter in a strictly instrumental way. Don’t treat your customers badly, for example, because they’re the key to making a profit. Or, in the present case, don’t irritate the people of Wrigley, because if you do they might do something inconvenient, like protesting.

A leading modern alternative to the only-shareholders-matter view is sometimes called the “stakeholder” view (or sometimes, in academic circles, “stakeholder theory.”) The core of the stakeholder view is the idea that the real ethical task of corporate managers is to balance the interests of various stakeholders—defined as the individuals and groups whose interests intersect with those of the corporation. After all, many people contribute to the success of a firm, from customers to suppliers to members of local communities. And if they all contribute, they all have the right to ask for something in return. (You can read a summary of my review of a recent book on the topic, here: “Managing for Stakeholders.”)

The pipeline story is an excellent example of both the strengths and the limits of the stakeholder perspective. It’s surely useful for executives at Enbridge (or any other company, in the midst of an environmental crisis) to survey the situation and ask, “Who do we need to talk to? Who has a stake in this?” So, are the people of Wrigley stakeholders in Enbridge? Pretty clearly, yes. But after that, things get complicated. Does the environment itself automatically count as a stakeholder of some sort, or does it only count if the well-being of the people of Wrigley is jeopardized? What about the residents of Zama, Alberta? That’s the little town, 850 km away from Wrigley, to which Enbridge is planning to ship the contaminated soil. What about me? Like most people, I’m a consumer of oil. I clearly have a stake, here, don’t I? Pretty clearly, there are stakeholders and then there are stakeholders.

But once you’ve figured out who the stakeholders are, then what? Let’s take the easy one, a group that’s directly affected, namely the people of Wrigley. What are they owed? Are they owed the cleanup? Are they owed a speedy one? At what cost? Do they have a right to participate in the decision-making, or just to be kept informed? Or are they owed, as one resident suggested, a “swimming pool or a hockey arena or something for the kids”?

As you can see, one problem with the stakeholder view is that the word “stakeholder” doesn’t actually clarify much. Yet some people tend to sprinkle it on like fairy dust, as if simply anointing someone a Stakeholder™ clarifies what is owed to them, ethically. Life in the little town of Wrigley should be so simple.