The uses of moral talk: Why do managers talk ethics?


When managers use moral expressions in their communications, they do so for several, sometimes contradictory reasons. Based upon analyses of interviews with managers, this article examines seven distinctive uses of moral talk, sub-divided into three groupings: (1) managers use moral talk functionally to clarify issues, to propose and criticize moral justifications, and to cite relevant norms; (2) managers also use moral talk functionally to praise and to blame as well as to defend and criticize structures of authority; finally (3) managers use moral talk dysfunctionally to rationalize morally ambiguous behavior and to express frustrations. The article concludes with several practical recommendations.

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Frederick Bird teaches Comparative Ethics at Concordia University, where he is an associate professor. He has recently written a text on the comparative sociological study of moral systems as well as a number of articles on business ethics and contemporary religious movements.

Frances Westley is an Assistant Professor of Policy at McGill University in Montreal. She publishes in the area of visionary leadership, organizational culture and change, and strategic communications.

James A. Waters was Dean, Graduate School of Management at Boston College. His research interests concerned the process of strategy formation in complex organizations, organizational change and development, and ethics in organizations. His work has been published in such journals as Organizational Dynamics, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Strategic Management Journal, California Management Review, Business Horizons, Journal of Applied Psychology, Business and Society, Canadian Journal of Administrative Science, Advanced Management Journal, Journal of Business Ethics, Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, and numerous anthologies. He died January 4, 1989.

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Bird, F., Westley, F. & Waters, J.A. The uses of moral talk: Why do managers talk ethics?. J Bus Ethics 8, 75–89 (1989) doi:10.1007/BF00382019

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  • Economic Growth
  • Defend
  • Practical Recommendation
  • Moral Justification
  • Relevant Norm