Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the venerable British company Lloyd’s of London sold insurance policies on enslaved people and the ships that transported them.1 In recent times, events such as the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, together with ongoing concerns about racism and racial injustices, have intensified the pressure on companies to recognize their contributions to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In June 2020, Lloyd’s of London issued a direct and unambiguous apology: “We are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the 18th- and 19th-century slave trade. This was an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period.” Since then, the company has hired an archivist to examine its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade more thoroughly and opened its archives. It has also made a commitment to develop Black and minority ethnic talent, increase its share of minority employees, and prevent its complicity in the use of slave labor in supply chains.
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Today, corporate success requires dealing with the past. Throughout history, companies have been complicit in human rights violations and mass atrocities such as slavery, genocide, wars, and harms related to colonialism. Businesses’ involvement in these events remains a great concern for stakeholders today as momentum for social justice and equity builds within society. Many people — including customers and employees — increasingly expect companies with these ties to acknowledge and respond to their historic transgressions, even when they are generations removed from culpability.
We have conducted extensive research on historic corporate social responsibility, including interviews with corporate executives, legal professionals, and victims of mass atrocities and their descendants, plus reviews of news and corporate publication archives. What we have found is that managers who meaningfully engage with their company’s past can address the resulting harm while simultaneously contributing to their company’s successful future. Those who try to avoid historical issues, on the other hand, risk the company’s reputation and sometimes more.
The Forces Behind Today’s Historical Reckonings
The range of reasons that compel companies to deal with their past includes five key groups. Some forces, both internal and external, press companies to acknowledge and right past wrongs, while others take the form of opportunities for a better future.
1. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade,” Lloyd’s of London, accessed Nov. 3, 2022, www.lloyds.com.
2. S. Federman, “Last Train to Auschwitz: The French National Railways and the Journey to Accountability” (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021).
3. “Work on Holocaust Memorial Stopped Over Degussa Role,” Deutsche Welle, Oct. 27, 2003, www.dw.com.
4. C. MacLeod, “Fifty Years Later, U.S., Vietnam Deal With Agent Orange,” USA Today, Nov. 7, 2012, www.usatoday.com; and P. Dung, “Agent Orange in Vietnam: Legality and U.S. Insensitivity,” The Diplomat, April 14, 2022, https://thediplomat.com.
5. N. Phan Quế Mai, “America, Please Don’t Forget the Victims of Agent Orange,” The New York Times, April 29, 2021, www.nytimes.com.
6. Dung, “Agent Orange in Vietnam.”
7. A. Stevenson and C. Buckley, “Blackwater Founder’s New Company Strikes a Deal in China. He Says He Had No Idea,” The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2019, www.nytimes.com; and S. Sweeney, “Blackwater Mercenaries Training Far-Right Militia in Ukraine, Donetsk Military Commander Claims,” Morning Star, Jan. 31, 2022, https://morningstaronline.co.uk.
8. A. Hamilton and D.A. Gioia, “Fostering Sustainability-Focused Organizational Identities,” in “Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation,” eds. L.M. Roberts and J.E. Dutton (New York: Routledge, 2009), 427-451; and D. Hamilton, “How Organizations Can Balance Authenticity With Propriety,” MIT Sloan Management Review, May 9, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.
9. L.P. Tost, K.A. Wade-Benzoni, and H.H. Johnson, “Noblesse Oblige Emerges (With Time): Power Enhances Intergenerational Beneficence,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 128 (May 1, 2015): 61-73.
10. J. McGee, “Brands Leaving Russia Are on the Right Side of History,” Independent.ie., March 20, 2022, www.independent.ie.
11. K.A. Wade-Benzoni, H. Sondak, and A.D. Galinsky, “Leaving a Legacy: Intergenerational Allocations of Benefits and Burdens,” Business Ethics Quarterly 20, no. 1 (January 2010): 7-34; and M. Fox, L.P. Tost, and K.A. Wade-Benzoni, “The Legacy Motive: A Catalyst for Sustainable Decision Making in Organizations,” Business Ethics Quarterly 20, no. 2 (April 2010): 153-185.
12. C. Booth, P. Clark, A. Delahaye, et al., “Accounting for the Dark Side of Corporate History: Organizational Culture Perspectives and the Bertelsmann Case,” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 18, no. 6 (September 2007): 625-644.
13. J. Schrempf-Stirling, G. Palazzo, and R.A. Phillips, “Historic Corporate Social Responsibility,” Academy of Management Review 41, no. 4 (October 2016): 700-719.
14. Federman, “Last Train to Auschwitz.”
15. Janssen, “Addressing Corporate Ties to Slavery.”