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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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11. The name of the game:
euphemisms and spoilsports
At the end of 2010 it emerged that a man named Daniel had been degraded and tortured by
colleagues in a factory over a period of 10 years. Daniel was tied down on a pallet while a
colleague pushed his genitals into his face.They locked him in a cage, poured 25 kilos of talcum
powder over him and went to work on him with a pressure washer. His colleagues found this
completely unremarkable. One of them, Lucien, claimed it was ‘normal in the company’. It
happened frequently.That’s why Lucien was ilming when Daniel was mistreated. He thought
of it as ‘joking around’ rather than bullying.
What happened here is a common occurrence: the use of euphemisms strips unethical
practices of their moral connotations. Bribery becomes ‘oiling the wheels’ or ‘service costs’,
stealing becomes ‘pinching’ and ‘freeloading’ and sleeping at work (something 42 percent
of Americans admit to having done) becomes ‘recharging’ or ‘having a quiet moment’. By
labeling things differently we take the ethical sting out of them and make them acceptable,
normal or even desirable. Bullying is wrong, but if it is deined as ‘joking around’ then it
becomes a social activity. So, for the sake of being sociable, Daniel’s colleagues tied him to a
pallet, laughed about it and ilmed him so they could enjoy it again later. According to Albert
Bandura, who has written on this topic, euphemisms are a dangerous weapon. They close
people’s eyes and ears to what is morally questionable.
It is therefore important to remain alert to the use of euphemisms and to be quick to
address them. Fraudulent practices can be allowed to hide behind terms such as ‘earnings
management’, ‘creative bookkeeping’ and ‘inancial engineering’. Terms such as ‘trimming’,
‘adjusting’, ‘reshaping’, and ‘slimming down’ can be used to rationalize a wave of redundancies.
And terms such as ‘slip-up’, ‘side effects’, and ‘externalities’ can cover serious incidents,
abuses and reprehensible damage. Projects and programs can also have apparently innocent
or even humorous names, while it is clear to insiders that shady dealings are involved. The
energy company Enron, for example, used all kinds of names for strategies to manipulate
the energy market in California. ‘Death Star’ referred to transfer of energy in the opposite
direction to demand, causing congestion on the grid. Enron then received money from the
11.The name of the game: euphemisms and spoilsports