Organizational remembering of corporate (ir-)responsibility

Stephanie Decker
Professor of Strategy & History
University of Bristol

2017 / 2020

British Academy Small Grant SG162478

Project summary

This project focuses on how German companies held responsible for exploiting forced labour from concentration camps in Nazi Germany have had to publicly come to terms with their past in the last 20 years. The significance of this research lies in the in-depth study of organizational remembering and forgetting of a traumatic past, specifically the way in which present-day managers seek to deal with the public memory of the crimes of their predecessors through both avoidance and admission of guilt. Scholars have argued that public apology in the so-called “age of apology” is frequently not intended to aid (organizational) remembering, but to hasten both organizational and public forgetting. This research project seeks to contribute to organizational theories in the area of organizational remembering and forgetting, specifically in terms of the use of the somewhat ambiguous genre of corporate histories. This has implications for how public and organizational memory interact over long periods of time.

Programme of research

In the last 20 years, German companies were forced to come to terms with their past (Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung) especially in terms of exploiting forced labour in Nazi Germany. In 2016, the German national airline Lufthansa published its own commissioned history at the same as an independent academic corporate history, which raised questions about whether there was a corporate whitewash. The way in which German companies present their Nazi past in corporate histories and public relations is closely monitored and part of a broader, deeply contentious, national debate. The genre of academically researched corporate history – with its claims to academic rigour and objectivity – becomes an important artefact of organizational processes of remembering and forgetting, esp. where dark organizational pasts are concerned. In this case, the “return of the repressed” was the result of highly effective campaigning by survivors in the US and critical news reporting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The financial aspects were settled quickly through a foundation entitled “Memory, Responsibility, Future”. However, the more fundamental damage to reputation and corporate identities led to a boom in releasing academically researched, yet nevertheless commissioned, corporate histories that exhaustively reviewed the evidence of corporate crimes between 1933 and 1945.

German business is unique in the depth and breadth with which past corporate irresponsibility has been researched at the request of the firms themselves. Recent academic debates about how organizations use the past, specifically how they seek to remember, or more frequently forget, corporate irresponsibility in the past, have hardly addressed the German case (Mena, Rintamaekki, Fleming, Spicer 2016; Anteby and Molnar 2012). Moreover, the strategies embodied in these corporate histories range from denial over partial acceptance of guilt to full disclosure and offer significant insights into how firms manage their pasts for the present and the future. Ignoring or denying such a past can become counter-productive (Rowlinson, Hassard, Decker 2014; Booth, Clarke, Delahaye, Procter, Rowlinson 2007), while acceptance and apology may be as much in service of forgetting as remembering (Ricoeur 2004).

The proposed research aims to contribute further to the scholarly debate about how organizations remember and forget, specifically which kind of narrative strategies organizations employ when they try to deal with potential threats in their pasts. Semi-structured interviews with corporate archivists will be conducted in addition to an in-depth analysis of corporate histories and public debates in the media about the company’s contemporary responsibility for past crimes (Schrempf-Stirling, Palazzo, Phillips 2016). The aim is to build a conceptual model of how collective processes of remembering and forgetting in the public sphere interact with organizational practices of dealing with the past. The memory of crimes that caused significant trauma transcends organizational boundaries and poses questions that neither organizational memory studies nor historical or social memory studies can address adequately alone, making this an interdisciplinary, multi-methods project that challenges our understanding of the relevance of past events to present-day organizations.