Virtue Rhetoric in Investor Communications: Setting Up for a Letdown?

Miles A. Zachary, Brian L. Connelly, G. Tyge Payne, Lori L. Tribble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Many companies prominently espouse their virtuous character in communications with investors, with a view toward influencing investor perceptions about the firm’s standards of behavior. While there are benefits to investors perceiving an organization to be virtuous, what happens if the firm violates those standards by engaging in unethical behavior? In this study, we use expectancy violations theory to argue that virtue rhetoric sets investors up for disappointment. When an organization claims to be virtuous but then acts unethically, investors respond to the ethics violation more negatively than they would otherwise. We also theorize about scenarios where investors may overlook unethical behavior or intensify their disapproval of it. To test our ideas, we assemble a unique sample of unethical events committed by S&P 500 companies over a 12-year period, combined with analysis of the virtue rhetoric found in their annual letters to shareholders. Our main finding is that investor reaction to unethical behavior is more negative for companies that claimed to be virtuous prior to the violation than for those that did not make such claims. This relationship is less strong when the company has high expected future value.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)741-770
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Management
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • expectancy violations theory
  • organizational virtue
  • strategic framing
  • unethical behavior


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