The language the financial services industry has adopted obscures many ethical and moral issues that practitioners face every day, and can lead to results that run against the interests of clients, customers and employees, says Clare Payne, a founding director of the Banking and Finance Oath.

Speaking at the Banking and Finance Ethics Conference in Sydney on Thursday, Payne said the four “enemies of ethics” are stating issues in terms of a business case, using acronyms, resorting to abstractions and euphemisms, and adopting terms borrowed from other fields and disciplines.

“Limited language” creates ethical blind spots, Payne said.

As a lawyer by qualification, and the daughter of an English teacher and a psychologist, Payne said she always had an interest in language and “maybe that’s why I’ve been aware of what it does to our behaviour. Words really, really matter,” she said.

Practices that started in the finance and business worlds have started to infect others. When a government report mentions the “cost offsets of premature mortality”, it masks the enormity of what it is really addressing: eight people in Australia commit suicide every day. When a report on child abuse fails to state, even once, that child abuse is wrong, and that every child has the right to live without abuse, the moral message is lost.

“They talk about expenditure, the costing framework and the economic burden of dealing with people who have been abused,” Payne said. “It [leaves] out a really important aspect of it.”

Payne said that when organisations ask for a business case, it usually includes only financial and economic issues and is far less likely to address ethical and moral aspects, or society’s expectations or needs.

“That is a big piece that should be part of any business case,” she said.

Hiding behind acronyms

Payne said acronyms remove genuine meaning in communication.

“If you invest in GICS:302030, you’ve just bought a tobacco stock,” she said, referring to the Global Industry Classification Standard code for tobacco companies.

Other industries are already pushing back against this, she explained, including in the health sector, where the acronym NCD – standing for non-communicable diseases – is increasingly seen as inadequate to describe the current epidemic of tobacco-related deaths.

The use of abstractions and euphemisms depersonalises actions and removes the ethical dimension from the results of those actions, Payne said. When a passenger is dragged from a commercial flight, he is being “de-planed”.

“When they were doing it, I’m sure they thought it was OK, because this kind of abstraction had removed the human element,” she said.

When a company sacks people, their positions are made redundant, downsized, right-sized, smart-sized, or off-boarded.

“When something that can be the most life-changing and devastating thing to happen to someone can be called ‘workforce optimisation’, that is going to very much influence the way people approach the whole process,” Payne said.

Business is nothing like war

Borrowing terms and jargon from other fields robs them of their originally intended meanings, Payne said. The language of the military, for example, is often – and often unwisely – appropriated by business.

“It can tend to have unintended outcomes,” she said. “We use war terms in business so frequently…and war is a very different situation to business and a very different situation to finance.

“Listen to just one paragraph I wrote off the top of my head: ‘As a manager, he rallied the troops with his signature, take-no-prisoners style. The division he led launched its counter-attack after establishing a [beach head]. They’d agreed not to pincer the competition, which had been in the trenches for a while. His team respected the chain of command, recognising those who had risen through the ranks. They’d all drawn a line in the sand in an effort to put a stake in the ground, signalling a new regime. This had allowed the team to finally execute the mission.’ I’m sure you understood what I was saying.”

Payne said such war metaphors may not resonate well with women and may be confusing for people who speak English as a second language.

“It says something about the type of organisation you want to be if you’re using this type of language to explain a business deal,” Payne said. “It’s common. It’s not always bad, but it’s common and we should be aware of it for its unintended consequences.”

Distancing ourselves from humanity

 Payne said the language of ethics rarely crops up in “what has become the accepted language of business”.

“The language of business talks of human resources, cost-benefit analysis, economic drivers – things like that,” she said. “It’s technical and it’s become abstract. It’s very morally and ethically neutral. That poses a real risk. We only have to think back to the case of the Ford Pinto, where they worked out the cost-benefit analysis of keeping cars on the road that had the chance of killing people.”

Payne said Ford concluded “through financial analysis and a graph” that the risk of not recalling the cars was acceptable. But acceptable to whom?

Even though the company was countenancing a real risk to human life, “the way it was presented was very abstract and removed [and] they actually approved this decision”.

“That’s kind of the worst-case scenario of what can happen,” she said.

But similar issues happen on a smaller scale all the time in business and finance. Payne said abstract and morally and ethically neutral language can “chip away at our sense of morality and really almost remove it completely”.

“It can obscure intentions to the point where we can deceive ourselves, because we’re not connected with the detail of what we’re doing,” she said. “And it can definitely make things more palatable if we put it in business language, rather than the language of ethics.”

Join the discussion