Contending with Janus’s two faces: Managing history to preserve organisational reputation

The third event in our Stigma, Organisations, Authenticity, and Reputation (SOAR) seminar series, hosted by the Centre for Corporate Reputation

Kisha Lashley, Assistant Professor of Commerce, University of Virginia, and Christi Lockwood, Assistant Professor of Commerce, University of Virginia, were the guest speakers for a seminar hosted by Tom Lawrence, Professor of Strategic Management, and Eva Schlindwein, Postdoctoral Research Fellow as part of the SOAR seminar series.

Organisations realise numerous benefits from having good reputations, including greater support from stakeholders, the ability charge premium prices, and greater success forming alliances and moving up a status hierarchy. With all of these positive outcomes, it is crucial to fully understand the processes through which organisations can maintain their good reputations. Although in past work, scholars have emphasised that an organisation’s history is instrumental in reputation formation and maintenance, the relationship between organisational history and reputation has received less attention in recent years. However, as stakeholders have gained new tools for examining and contesting these histories (eg social media, access to online archives), organisations have become more restricted in their ability to use and rewrite them to foster positive reputation, surfacing a need to reconsider the challenges and tensions that may arise in organisational efforts to do so.   

In the talk, Kisha and Christi considered how an organisation remembers and revises a history it would prefer to forget, particularly when a curated version of that history has long served as the basis for its positive reputation and a source of its competitive advantage. They examine these tensions within the context of the University of Virginia and its effort to contend with its relationship to slavery and to its founder, Thomas Jefferson. For almost 200 years, the university had exalted its intimate relationship with Thomas Jefferson—one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Given Thomas Jefferson’s central role in founding the university, it latched on to this history as a key element of its identity and image. Over the years, that relationship served the university well, facilitating recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, in more recent years, various stakeholders became more forceful in challenging aspects of the history, demanding that the university acknowledge and atone for its and Thomas Jefferson’s role in the institution of slavery.

Kisha and Christi discussed the emergence and evolution of the ideas in this project. They also drew on their personal experiences to consider the opportunities and challenges for scholars who are conducting research in a context in which they are deeply embedded. Furthermore, as they examine their own emotional engagement with the project, they discussed their thoughts about the roles and responsibilities of scholars who are studying contentious issues.