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There's no need to be afraid of using the M word at work

Rochester Business Journal
July 3, 2009
Morality-the M word-is not one you hear bandied about in the workplace very often. In companies with ethical corporate cultures, you'll hear statements such as "We need to do what's right," "We need to meet our ethical obligations" or "We will always comply with our legal obligations." But you rarely hear someone say, "We have a moral obligation to do that." Many companies have codes of business ethics, but I don't know of any that have codes of "business morality."

I suppose there are several reasons for this general aversion to using the M word at work. Some people may believe that business professionals should be excused from certain moral obligations universally recognized in aspects of our lives outside the workplace. This crowd might maintain that business is like a poker game, in which it is understood that the rules include permission to engage in otherwise "immoral" acts like deliberate deception. However, those who subscribe to such a view can't seriously maintain that such a "moral holiday" is absolute in business. Even the most Machiavellian business people would likely hold, for example, that it would be immoral for a competitor to bomb their factory and kill them and their families to gain a competitive advantage.

I think there is another more common reason why most people avoid using the M word at work. In our culture, the word is closely tied to religious doctrines. Religions of all kinds promote moral codes generally aimed at assisting believers to achieve such goals as avoiding sin, living a holy life, developing spiritually and winning eternal salvation. Such goals are at variance with those of most businesses, whose principal aim, of course, is to provide goods and services and to create value for their owners. In addition, because religious doctrines vary widely, businesses with employees from multiple faiths rightly operate on a secular basis. They welcome people of all religions but insist that employees not attempt to impose their beliefs on others in the workplace.

And so we avoid using the M word either because we think it has little place in business to begin with or out of fear that we may be perceived as grounding our business judgments on our religious convictions. Although it is essential for businesses to operate on a secular basis, if for no other reason than to avoid disharmony in the workplace, the fear of the M word is unfounded.

First, this phobia is based on an unnecessarily narrow understanding of the word. Morality is derived from the Latin word moralitas, meaning manner, character or proper behavior. It is synonymous with ethics, which is generally defined as the systematic study of what moral behavior is. So one should be no more averse to using moral at work than to using ethical. The two words relate to the same thing-proper behavior-and can be used interchangeably.

It is also important to recognize that religions are not the only source for defining or providing guidance on what constitutes proper behavior. Governments, communities and organizations of all kinds, including businesses, play a significant role in drawing moral lines for individuals subject to their influence. This, of course, is what laws and company policies are designed to do; they expressly attempt to define proper behavior and set penalties for improper behavior.

This is not to suggest that laws or company policies always draw the lines in the right places. History has shown time and again that this is not the case. Instead, the point is that when we talk about moral conduct in a business context, we are not necessarily espousing a religious position. Instead, we can be articulating our reasoned judgment based on a set of commonly held values espoused in the law, community norms and company policies.

Second, morality and moral reasoning clearly play an important part in making sound business decisions. Regardless of what language is used to describe the process, business professionals make moral judgments every day. Take, for example, routine business issues such as "How safe is 'safe enough'?" with regard to products or working conditions, "How clean is 'clean enough'?" with regard to environmental emissions and "What constitutes a fair wage?" All of these and myriad other issues that business people face require moral judgments. In such cases, people are trying to discern proper behavior while taking into account the facts and their ethical or moral obligations.

So, the next time you get a chance, use the M word at work. Don't be afraid. If you get raised eyebrows, help your colleagues understand that you are not expressing your religious beliefs. Instead you are merely providing your best business judgment based on the facts and relevant principles.

Of course, to demonstrate that you are not merely expressing a religious belief, you must be prepared to properly defend your moral judgments. To do this you must employ the one tool that is essential in making any moral decision-sound reasoning.

Judging by what we've gone through in the business community during the first nine years of this millennium, sound reasoning and more frequent use of the M word can't happen soon enough.

Jim Nortz is compliance director at Bausch & Lomb Inc. and is a member of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are Nortz's alone and may not reflect those of Bausch & Lomb or the RABEF. For more information about the RABEF, go to Nortz can be reached at (585) 260-8960 or

07/03/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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