This is Certifiable! Strategic Certification Silence (What?)
Few would question the surge in certifications. Of course, there’s the bread and butter certs like Ph.D. or CPA that everybody knows. Then, there’s the domain specific certifications that only a select sample would know, but know well. For instance, in the HR field there’s a certification called SPHR, which stands for Senior Professional in Human Resources (now you know!). Beyond individuals, organizations are getting in on the act of trying to earn their own certifications like LEED, which indicates energy and environmental stewardship in construction or real estate. Most of us, then, would take it as an article of faith that once an individual or organization captures a certification, they would want to yell it from the mountaintops and brag and brag and brag….
Certification’s Are Good Right?
Not so fast. Two researchers from BYU challenged this assumption and have some numbers to back it up in a profound study published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They first noticed that some firms worked incredibly hard and put out large quantities of Benjamins to achieve the Dow Jones Sustainability Index Certification (DJSI). Make no mistake, this honor’s a biggie and is all the rage for tree-huggers and climate watchers. Only 10% of firms in a given sector or discipline ever get this world class environmental certification. But, surprisingly, some firms kept their certs quiet—a secret. For instance, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) went dark about publicizing their certification in the same year that they were sued by an environmental group called Save Our Springs Alliance. Xcel also won the hard earned certification but took a page from the Go-Go’s book and kept their lips sealed. But they only did that when the EPA started to come down on them for how they were running or not running a coal plant.
Strategic Certification Silence
So, what in the world’s going on—what would keep an individual or organization from remaining strategically silent after winning a hard earned certification? The authors decided to test some theories using regression analysis and some tests of moderation (insert yawn here). Their overriding logic, though, went something like this. First, we all love to collect letters in the form of certifications. But we’ll strategically withhold sharing our certifications with others if we’re experiencing a reputational attack that goes against what the cert stands for. Also, the legitimacy of the certification seems to matter. Specifically, organizations don’t want the word to get out that they did something bad that goes against a cert that everybody knows about and is deemed as legitimate. That’s why AMD climbed back in their hole even after achieving the most sought out environmental certification in corporate America—because Save Our Springs Alliance was mad-as-hell that they were about to construct a building that would damage an important watershed near Austin, Texas. Same goes for Xcel. They would’ve probably run with their DJSI cert and posted it on billboards until the EPA started to come knocking about the pollution from a poorly run coal plant.
Let’s diagram it for you. Hypocrisy is bad. And hypocrisy exists when our actions don’t quite mesh with our wonderful certifications or what they stand for. People, shareholders, stakeholders, and the media can’t make sense of someone bragging about their cert while they’re doing something that goes against what the cert is all about. So, impression management comes into play. And, sometimes, the best course of action is NO action. Just remain silent and not call attention to your cert in the fear of being labeled a hypocrite. ‘Cause once that happens, all hell can break loose. So, the lesson here is that it isn’t always a good idea to publish or promote your certification, especially when you’re being threatened in an area related to the cert (see Xcel and AMD above). It’s so true; sometimes it’s better to keep the Kimono closed, after all.