The issue of employees’ moral muteness – the idea that employees would be reluctant to talk openly about moral issues within their organisations, or to use moral arguments publicly to defend their views – seems to be in line with common intuition. This is all the more true for organisations with a commercial vocation. Insofar as the frame of reference that defines the judgments and actions of their members is essentially economic, moral considerations cannot easily be imposed (1). Moral muteness would result. Without denying the importance of this phenomenon, a recent article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology offers empirical results that run counter to this vision (2). It shows that, under certain conditions, moral language would have more practical effects than economic language when it comes to defending social issues. We discuss this in the present article.  

The causes of reluctance to use moral language

In 2015, Susan Ashford and James Detert summarised the situation of managers wishing to propose a new idea (not necessarily a moral one) to top management:

“Even when they do speak up, most managers struggle to sell their ideas to people at the top. They find it difficult to raise issues to a “strategic” level early in the decision-making process—if they gain entry into such conversations at all. Studies show that senior executives dismiss good ideas from below far too often, largely for this reason: If they don’t already perceive an idea’s relevance to organizational performance, they don’t deem it important enough to merit their attention. Middle managers have to work to alter that perception.” (3)

The difficulty highlighted by Ashford and Detert, is increased when the “ideas” are of a moral nature. Frederick Bird and James Waters addressed it in an article published in 1989, in which they proposed the notion of “moral muteness” (4). According to their definition, this notion does not imply that managers perform non-moral actions because they cannot express moral arguments to defend another course of action. Rather, it means that they tend to describe in non-moral terms the moral actions they perform on behalf of their organisation. In Bird and Waters’s view, the fact that managers impose such silence on themselves is caused by three prejudices that are part of their “lay theory” about how a company operates:

– the use of moral language is a potential source of confrontation;

– the moral debate leads to a loss of efficiency in the functioning of the organisation;

– the use of moral arguments in the context of the company refers to ideals or utopias which, in the face of the imperative of performance, are considered futile. (5)


Moral muteness can be overcome

The issue of employee muteness, whether moral or societal, has been studied in particular in the wake of the work of Jane Dutton and Susan Ashford (6). Susan Ashford contributed to the research discussed in this article (2). There are considerations as intuitive as those we have mentioned so far about the separation thesis (see note 1) or moral muteness. The apparent evidence of these considerations justifies their empirical testing. This is precisely the task the four authors undertook, to answer one aspect of the question presented in the title of their article: “The money or the morals?” The authors seek to identify the conditions under which moral muteness can be overcome to make way for the use of moral language. They examine a specific circumstance in which this type of language could be used: that in which social issues are at stake (7). Here are their main observations. (a) The manner in which an argument is presented on a matter of public interest is an essential element of the persuasion process. Behind this truism is the need for the speaker to adapt to the reference framework of the recipient of his message. (b) The prejudice that, in order to defend a social issues perspective, it is preferable to explain how it is of economic interest to the company, amounts to perpetuating the economic reference framework to which its members refer when judging and acting. In the authors’ words, this prejudice has the character of a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” (c) It is therefore important to combat such prejudice, by showing under which conditions the use of moral language is preferable to economic language in the context of social issues. Therefore,

“using moral language could activate a moral decision frame which could lead to more cooperative and prosocial behavior aimed at addressing the social issue.”

The effectiveness of an argument depends on its consistency with the values declared by the company. (d) The authors’ contribution is, in their own words, to consider that the more persuasive the formulation of a social issue is in moral terms, the more likely it is to be in line with the organisation’s values and/or mission. It is then “more consensually legitimate.” These values are not necessarily those that are revealed by the many actions carried out within the organisation. These are the values that it declares publicly. (e) The result, incidentally, is that those who wish to raise a social issue within their organisation must be “flexible,” since they must be able to “possess the flexibility to frame a message in different ways to appeal to different audiences.”  (f) The authors consider two mechanisms that could promote the effectiveness of moral language (assuming that this language is consistent with the organisation’s values and/or missions). These mechanisms are at work not with the person who raises a social issue, but with the recipient of the message. These are pro-social motivation (oriented towards the well-being of others) and anticipated guilt. The first mechanism, in particular, reflects the moral sensitivity of the recipient of the message, who could, for example, consider that the moral argument presented to him or her is original and inspiring.  

Moral language can be more persuasive than economic language

(g) Through a series of studies, the authors tested the hypothesis that

“the use of moral language is more effective when the issue is framed as having a high fit with the company’s values and/or mission, while controlling for use of economic language,”

as well as the role of the two above-mentioned mechanisms. While their first studies have, for experimental reasons, produced contrasting results, the overall conclusion is that

“in contrast to prior research and conventional wisdom suggesting that it is best to use economic language when selling social issues at work […], we found that economic language is ineffective and that moral language can be effective when the issue also is framed as fitting the company’s values and/or mission.”

Of the two mechanisms tested, pro-social motivation and anticipated guilt, only the second reinforces the effect of the moral argument.  

Conclusions of the authors

What practical conclusions do the authors draw from their study? The first is a challenge to employees’ prejudices about the predominance of economic logic in the business context. To the extent that these preconceived opinions are often held by the employees themselves, the study invites them to consider that they have, more than they suppose, the freedom to express moral arguments. The second practical lesson concerns companies’ values. It is in the interest of companies to strengthen them, in other words to make them more prominent. Indeed,

“when the organization’s mission and values are more salient to employees, it makes it easier for employees to consider how they might use moral arguments to sell their issue of interest.”


General conclusion and criticism

These conclusions are appealing. They suggest an ideal situation in which members of an organisation would be able to address any social issue provided that they get rid of their prejudices about the economic logic of the company, that they know how to choose the right communication register according to their interlocutors, and, especially, that they “align” (a term used by the authors) their moral arguments with the values and/or mission of their company. Two final remarks. Firstly, the fact that a manager is convinced by the moral arguments of one of his or her employees because these arguments are aligned with the company’s values does not exclude that the manager acts for non-ethical reasons. While the authors argue that the positive role played by the feeling of anticipated guilt is positive, the moral value of such a feeling is not clearly assessed. Secondly, the article’s emphasis on an employee’s practical intelligence is rather disturbing. An employee wishing to defend a social issue perspective should indeed reflect on the place that moral concepts should have in his or her argumentation. Consider the following situation:

(i) an employee may choose, for example, to speak about respect for human rights to defend a human rights position, without referring to the values of his or her company;

(ii) he or she may use the same “tactic” (a term used by the authors of the article), but this time with reference to the values of his or her company;

(iii) or he or she can avoid moral language and focus, for example, on reputation risk for his or her company.

This does not mean that this employee will choose to be (i) moral, (ii) in accordance with the morality declared by his company, or (iii) amoral. He or she will only choose the most appropriate language to express his or her position. Undoubtedly, employees will think, this thoughtful choice will not affect their own convictions. We will assume that they know how to make well- considered decisions, that the content of the language they use may sometimes differ from the content of their beliefs, and that this has no consequences. But will this always be the case if this kind of exercise becomes a habit, and if this habit is considered second nature? Alain Anquetil (1) This practical incompatibility between economic logic and moral thought has been conceptualised in business ethics through the concept of “separation thesis.” See R. E. Freeman, “The politics of stakeholder theory: Some future directions,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(4), 1994, pp. 409-421. (2) D. M. Mayer, M. Ong, S. Sonenshein and S. J. Ashford, “The money or the morals? When moral language is more effective for selling social issues,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(8), 2019, pp. 1058-1076. (3) S. J. Ashford & J. R. Detert, “Get the boss to buy in,” Harvard Business Review, 93, 2015, pp. 72-79. (4) F. B. Bird and J. A. Waters, “The moral muteness of managers,” California Management Review, 32(1), 1989, pp. 73-88. (5) The contents of these three prejudices are derived from A. Anquetil, Qu’est-ce que l’éthique des affaires? Paris, Vrin, “Chemins Philosophiques,” 2008. (6) See for example J. E. Dutton & S. J. Ashford, “Selling issues to top management,” Academy of Management Review, 18, 1993, pp. 397-428. (7) Social issues include, among other things, questions relating to labour relations, employee rights, diversity, discrimination, environmental protection or corporate social responsibility. (8) Pro-social means “for the benefit of society” (Collins Dictionary and includes caring for others, generosity, and kindness” (N. Eisenberg and P. Müssen, The roots of prosocial behavior in children, Cambridge University Press, 1989). [cite]

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