A Mixed Blessing? CEOs’ Moral Cleansing as an Alternative Explanation for Firms’ Reparative Responses Following Misconduct

Joel B. Carnevale, K. Ashley Gangloff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


When firm misconduct comes to light, CEOs are often faced with difficult decisions regarding whether and how to respond to stakeholder demands as they attempt to restore their firms’ legitimacy. Prior research largely assumes that such decisions are motivated by CEOs’ calculated attempts to manage stakeholder impressions. Yet, there are likely other motives, particularly those of a morally-relevant nature, that might also be influencing CEOs’ decisions. To address this limitation, we advance moral cleansing as an alternative explanation for how and why CEOs lead their firms to respond to stakeholder demands following the firm’s misconduct and, in turn, whether they can successfully restore their firm’s legitimacy. In the context of firm misconduct, moral cleansing motives reflect CEOs’ desire to restore their threatened moral self-image resulting from the misconduct. We theorize that a CEO’s moral cleansing motives increase the likelihood that their firm will engage in a series of reparative responses that can restore the firm’s legitimacy (i.e., discovery, explanation, penance, and rehabilitation). In addition, we explicate the unique implications of CEOs’ moral cleansing in a post-misconduct context by theorizing how such motives may simultaneously improve one form of their firms’ legitimacy while hindering another. Specifically, we theorize that CEOs’ moral cleansing motives increase (decreases) the authenticity (strategic cognition) of their firm responses, which strengthens (weakens) the effectiveness of those responses on the firms’ ability to restore its moral (pragmatic) legitimacy with stakeholders. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of this work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)427-443
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2023


  • Authenticity
  • Firm misconduct
  • Impression management
  • Moral cleansing
  • Strategic cognition
  • Upper echelons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • General Business, Management and Accounting
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Law


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