Barriers to Talking About Doing the Right Thing

This past Wednesday I had the pleasure of giving a talk at an excellent event held by the Conference Board of Canada’s Corporate Ethics Management Council.

The substance of my talk was not about business ethics per se but about lessons I’ve learned in blogging about business ethics over the last 4 years.

In my talk, I noted that I’d run into a trio of key challenges, ones that I strongly suspect pose challenges for people trying to talk about ethics within their own institutions.

One problem is familiarity or comfort with talking about ethics. For some people, talking about ethics just doesn’t come naturally. For some people, I think, it’s just not polite to raise questions about values or matters of right and wrong. To talk about ethics constructively, you need to be able to put the topic on the table. That’s a challenge.

A second problem is vocabulary. To have a conversation, well, you need to use words, and you need some agreement on how words are to be used. Under this heading, I noted two key problems. One is the problem of “the E-word,” or “ethics.” Some people unfortunately find the E-word off-putting, typically because they misunderstand the term. (I blogged about this a few months ago, under the heading, What’s Wrong With “Ethics”?) The other vocabulary problem has to do with the plurality of other terms used to talk about the basic idea of doing the right thing in business. I’ve blogged before about terms like Corporate Social Responsibility, Triple Bottom Line, Corporate Citizenship, and Stakeholder Theory. There are serious problems with each of those terms, but each of them is typically intended to encompass the whole topic of doing-the-right-thing in business. It can be hard to have a good conversation about a topic if you can’t agree on what the name of the topic is.

The third problem I talked about was fear. It’s hard for people to engage in constructive dialogue if they feel that their livelihoods, their control over their own lives, their most deeply-held beliefs are being challenged. Discussions about business ethics inevitably touch on one or more of those things.

Now, it’s a good thing if we can talk about these issues constructively, and in a way that minimizes people’s fears and anxieties, but we can’t wish away conflict. Our actions, our choices, just do affect other people, and we very frequently disagree over the appropriate limits on our actions when they do so. Anyone who talks about business-ethics as if it’s conflict-free, or as if it’s just about achieving ever-higher levels of niceness in commerce, is glossing over some very important questions.

6 comments so far

  1. Pascal on

    Hi Chris

    I do discuss values with individuals and teams, as part (at the start of) my “human-centered leadership” offering. I agree it’s very difficult for most people.

    I believe fear is the Number 1 factor. I would classify it as intenral or external. External is simplest : when my friends in the nuclear fuel business believe any discussion about value will lead to denying their right to operate.
    Internal is more complex : perhaps the fear of discovering that our deep feelings might actually contradict our “public face” statements (our social construct or persona).

    Agree also that debate about the name of things is annoying. I believe it is often related to fear,acting a bit as a smokescreen to avoid real discussion – unconsciously.

  2. crespin79 on

    Excellent article and feedback.
    It is true that discussing “ethics” is difficult. It is also true that many leaders are very good when it comes to talking about ethics, drafting and implementing codes of ethics and ensuring that others observe the respective codes of ethics. Where they fail is in leading by example, as far as ethics is concerned. Many of them continue to make false promises and unreasonable demands on employees, and seem to develop selective memory problems when it’s time to reward employees, customers and others in a fair manner. They also talk about “a green approach” as a mere exercise in public relations. Many of these leaders also talk about gender equality and then deprive women of their due rewards by maintaining or reinforcing the “glass ceiling.” I once worked for a financial organization which had a board of directors consisting of several men and one woman, as if to say “We do recognize female talent.” Well, truth be told, she was not adequately qualified for her position but maintained that position so that it would help the “boys” keep up appearances. For the record, the lady in question still maintains her position on the board of directors.

    By the way, Chris, I enjoy visiting your blog from time to time and I congratulate you for the same. I would also be happy to distribute free (abridged) copies of my books to those who visit your blog, if they request the free copies by writing to

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author: leadership, ethics, teamwork, etc.

  3. Anemone on

    I blog about ethics in the film industry, and am so far not really getting the response I’d like. (Though I know this can take a long time to get off the ground.)

    I guess what I’m getting out of your post is that it would probably help if I acknowledged more just how hard it can be to face this issue.

  4. […] (p.s., for a previous blog entry by me concerning the vocabulary of business ethics, see Barriers to Talking About Doing the Right Thing.) […]

  5. Patrik on

    Hi Chris,

    I am glad someone is discussing the problem of vocabulary. Maybe you can help me? Here is my problem:

    Let’s say someone wants to combine business and ethics and decides to create a Social Business like Prof. Yunus proposes it:

    So this man or woman actively decides to stick to a rather strict ethical codex. Now comes the problem of vocabulary:

    What is the name for such a person? Most people would probably say someone who runs a Social Business is a “Social Entrepreneur”. But the truth is that Social Entrepreneurs do not necessarily stick to a code of ethics, especially when it comes to the question of how to use the money that the company generates.

    So we somehow have a problem of identity for those who want to establish a Social Business since the appropriate word is missing.

    What term would you propose? Would you suggest something like “Social Businessman/woman”?

    Thank you for your time


    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your comment & question.
      But I’m not sure I see a big problem here. Is finding the right name crucial, here?
      I don’t see any problem with using the term “social entrepreneur,” for the kind of case you describe. If nothing in the definition of that term requires strict ethics, then the absence of strict ethics doesn’t disqualify someone from using that term. It certainly seems plausible that there will be unethical social entrepreneurs, just like there are unethical non-profits, unethical NGO’s, etc.


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