Enough with the euphemisms! It's time for ethics to talk back.

Euphemisms are often used to erase people, and ethics, out of business decisions. It’s high time for ethics to talk back.

While a lot is said about “walking the talk” in terms of ethical leadership, workplace ethics and the importance of consistency between what we say and what we do, let’s not forget the power of talking the talk.

The language we use in the workplace is at the centre of organisational ethics. What we say is a powerful enabler of ethical culture and ethical conduct. 

Unfortunately, while we are improving in using ethical language at work, we still have a long way to go. Most of us mask our ethics and instead use “business” language which is ethically empty.

Neutral language can desensitise us to ethical issues and appease us when we face unethical behaviour. Think of the term “collateral damage”, which is used to describe civilian deaths and injuries at war. The term neutralises our response, removes the moral loading of the action and the human face of those who suffered the consequences.

Professional Development: Professional ethics: a practical guide on why ethics are important for the finance professional and specifically refers to APES. 110

At work we have a number of euphemisms about firing people and making them unemployed; we may use terms such as ‘‘downsize” or “restructure”. We tend to take the human face out of the situation; instead of talking about people losing jobs, we talk about departments losing positions. If we talk of the people involved at all, we “redeploy” them. 

In accounting we might use the adjectives “aggressive” and “creative” to mask actions that may not be legal. We have “earnings management” to “massage” the figures and financial “irregularities”. 

The language we use to describe what we do alters how our choices or actions appear to ourselves and others. If I steal a pen from work but think I “took” or “borrowed” it, I would think and feel differently about what I did. 

Language provides a very powerful frame that influences our perception and action. It also helps us conceal from ourselves and others unethical behaviour

"What we say is a powerful enabler of ethical culture and ethical conduct."

Companies create euphemisms for misconduct that then enter the corporate vocabulary. At Siemens the term “useful money” was used to refer to bribes. Volkswagen referred to “irregularities” in relation to emissions cheating. The cheating itself was enabled by “defeat devices”, not illegal software.

Language enters the organisational culture and influences goals and behaviour. 

It’s interesting that while organisations talk about “living our values”, they do not really change their language or bring those values to bear in all their choices, decisions and actions.

If you want to improve the ethics talk at work, try to:

  • Use language that contains and reflects the values of the organisation and the principles of the profession.
  • Always put human faces in the terms you use and options you consider. Do not erase people from the language.
  • Talk explicitly about ethics by using words that awaken our ethical thinking, such as “honest”, “right”, “wrong”, “integrity”, “truthful” and “fair”. Call out others when they do not address ethical values and use neutral or unethical language.

We can’t address ethical conduct if we don’t have the right language to discuss, promote and evaluate it. We should demand that for each decision we make, we present not only the business case but also the ethics case.

Read next: Who do you blame for poor ethical behaviour

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March 2017
March 2017

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