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CEOs love to live their (expendable) values, but not their morals

Morality has become a dirty word. At least if the lack of use of the word in business language is anything to go by.

Sometimes things are notable by their absence rather than their presence. 

So why do we never hear speak of business morality?

Everywhere you look companies are “living their values” but with no mention of morality.

It’s worth noting that the Nazis had strong values: Hard work and efficiency were among them.

Values can be viewed as morally neutral, or worse. The Romans too, are said to have had strong values. That didn’t make their empire ethical.

Wikipedia disagrees with me and says values are linked with ethics. But when you look at most corporate values statements, that’s just not true in every day language use. 

I’d argue values have become disassociated with ethics in general usage and have become associated more with general corporate culture. Then they seem to become optional, as recent comments in the Financial Times suggest below.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is claimed to have said “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.”

I also recall a company stakeholder meeting where executives said “we’ve just hired a new CEO, so our values have changed”. When asked about the new values, they said, “well, er, fun, and friendly, and… um.. I can’t remember the others”. A year later the company was in deep ethical trouble. Perhaps there was a connection.

We don’t see companies discussing morals. Why this this?

Morality is a very loaded term for corporate executives.

The word morality feels like one is preaching, or being preached at.

Neither are management traits you hear celebrated on MBA courses.

(That is unless you are Steve Jobs perhaps, who was said to have had strong values but was not known as an ethics leader in the workplace)

Is it time to bring back a bit of morality into the workplace?

Can the word be de-toxified? I’m sure there’s a consultancy or branding agency that would love to modernise it for personal gain.

I’m not sure it needs a makeover.

There’s nothing wrong with being a moral manager, running a moral workplace, or having moral debates in the business.

It just requires more courage than throwing the world “values” around willy-nilly, removing their meaning with inappropriate usage, and then dumping them when a new CEO takes over.

After all, you can’t go a stakeholder meeting and claim you’ve got new corporate morals.

Let’s turn the word around and use it to cement positive, progressive, ethical behaviours in business.

Morality should be an opportunity, not a communications risk. Let us make it so.


  1. Really interesting post, Toby. The two company examples you use – Amazon and Apple – are both (or at least were in Apple's case) extremely dominant in their market place. Their customers have less choice than with other businesses. And customer choice can make it easier for the voice of morality to be heard inside companies. Starbucks, for example, has arguably responded more fully to the 'tax management' issue in the UK than Google or Amazon because consumers were able to vote with their feet and walk into Costa or Cafe Nero instead. Users of Amazon or Google have less choice. I agree that morality should be an intrinsic quality and that the drive for corporate morality alongside values should come from within. But external pressure can make it easier for those inside companies arguing for greater morality in decision making to make their case. And external pressure is most keenly felt when there is strong competition.

  2. I agree with you completely, and I'm so pleased to see somebody else saying this. I've just finished writing a book on the relationship between Islamic finance and other forms of 'ethical' finance (comes out in July) and in the course of researching it I became extremely irritated by the way companies throw around the word 'values', so much so that I commented on it directly in several instances. Although I do not uncritically endorse the teachings of any religion, I think that explicitly religious codes of morality do have a great advantage in terms of clarity and consistency.

  3. Watch Barry Schwartz on TED.COM – On our Loss of wisdom.