Honesty vs Self-Interest at Work


Joe O’Toole took over a small business with good staff relationships, delivering educational products and services to a satisfied clientele.

During his first year in the business, cracks began to appear in the workings of the business. Though he was a good man with a genial manner, he had very poor  skills in administration.

A year into his term, Joe had to employ a new deputy. Stella seemed like the answer to prayer. She was efficient, she followed up on details and was willing to work long hours. She compensated for many of Joe’s shortcomings. The trouble was that her dictatorial manner put other members of staff on edge. She made decisions on their behalf and overrode their authority. Morale declined and several well-respected staff members left.

After three years the company was struggling because of the loss of staff and because the people who had stayed were unhappy with the efficient but overbearing deputy. Moreover, many of the firm’s clients missed the staff who had resigned and had taken their business elsewhere.

Stella eventually decided to apply for another position. She approached Joe for a reference. But he found himself in a quandary. He knew that she compensated for his shortcomings and that he would miss the administrative support she provided. On the other hand he was aware of the difficulties she had created and of how the business had suffered overall.

Should he allow his own need to retain her services colour what he wrote in the reference? Was this an opportunity to dispense with a difficult staff member? Could he, should he, be totally honest?

The following scenario allows you to explore the viewpoints of a range of different people.

Finding The Facts

The facts in this story are reasonably easy to ascertain. Joe is aware of his own shortcomings, the strengths and weaknesses of Stella, and the state of his business. He is also aware of the potential impact of Stella in any new job though he cannot know for certain how this will unfold. He is, at heart, a good man and wants to make a decision that is ethical and will have positive outcomes for himself, his business and for Stella and her new employers.

Framework for Ethical Decision-Making

He might be helped in his decision-making by looking at some of the ethical questions that are important in making business decisions. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara offers a framework for ethical decision-making that is well worth a look. If Joe is interested in exploring some of the psychology behind human behaviour and moral decision-making, he could check some theories of moral developmentpresented on the website of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Of particular interest, morally speaking, are the ideas of Lawrence Kohlberg.


  • Evaluate the framework for moral decision-making presented by the Markkula Centre. What factors influence how we behave? What might influence the way people behave at work?
  • According to Kohlberg’s theory, what stage of moral development do you estimate Joe would be at?

Broadening Perspectives

Joe’s dilemma over writing Stella’s reference provides him with the motivation to look a little more closely at a couple of classic ethical positions on the right thing to do in such a situation. He could refer again to the website of the Markkula Center where the material on thinking ethically details several different philosophical approaches to decision-making.


He might wonder whether his fundamental disposition toward goodness and his concern for the common good with regard to his business and the rest of the staff might warrant a certain lack of honesty in the writing of Stella’s reference – a course of action that a utilitarian approach would call for.

But are ‘good persons’ good because of their inner dispositions to goodness, or because they consistently perform good acts? And does a good outcome justify the means? Might Joe need to consider the consequences of what ever he decides so that the greatest number of people will be happy with his decision?

What about the rights of Stella’s future employers and their clients to know the truth about her difficult personality? And then, there is Stella herself to consider – she is after all, a human being who is entitled to be treated fairly. What are her rights in this situation?

Virtue Theory

Delving deeper into philosophical perspectives, Joe might study an article presented on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on virtue theory which, put very simply, expresses the view that we are obliged to do the right thing regardless of consequences. Another essay on the Open University website, Kant on Trust’ by Alison Hills might also be of interest.

The Many Faces of Lies examines the human tendency to lie from the point of view of the social sciences.


  • Imagine a conversation between Joe and a utilitarian advocate such as John Stuart Mill. What advice might Mill give Joe?
  • Scroll through this article to see what would a theorist on individual and moral rights, for example Immanuel Kant, would have to say to him?
  • Having examined some of the philosophical perspectives to this problem, do you think it is better to tell the truth, without compromise, or to modify it according to its consequences?

Exploring Sacred Texts

The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes

Two fundamental ethical texts in the Bible are the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) and the Beatitudes. These texts give a basic orientation to ethical behaviour. However, their implications for Joe’s response need to be clarified. He might find that the discussion of the Eighth Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church helps him understand both the requirements of honesty and the need for charity in telling the truth.

Business and Ethics

Ray Cotton’s essay, “Business” and “Ethics”, discusses the possibility of a biblical basis for ethical behaviour and looks at five injunctions central to ethical business practice. The texts he identifies as relevant to ethical business practice are:

  • the idea of the ‘just weight’ in Deuteronomy 25:13–15, which has relevance in regard to cheating and fraudulent behaviour;
  • the requirement of total honesty, set out in Ephesians 4:25;
  • the call to mutual and generous service, described in Matthew 20:28;
  • the modelling of behaviour on the mercy of God, outlined in Romans 12:2;
  • the making of reasonable profits, allowed in Luke 6.

Gospel of Matthew

A text which deals with the necessity of straight talking within a community is Matthew 18:15–17. Of course, the context of an office is different to a community of faith, but Jesus’ words which advise honest but confidential exchanges between those who are having difficulties is universally relevant. As for the advice in verse 17 that people who will not change ought to be treated like Gentiles and tax-collectors, it is worth remembering how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax-collectors!


  • In an ideal Christian society, how ought this business dilemma be resolved? What would be the best possible outcomes for Joe, for Stella, for the staff, for the customers?
  • In your opinion, what has the Gospel to say to the world of business?

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

Church Traditions

Looking back through the Church’s tradition, we would guess that St Augustine would have no hesitation in advising Joe to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As we can see in his Summa, reproduced on the New Advent site, St Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle’s virtue ethic, also taught strict regard for truth but Aquinas also recognises that some lies are less reprehensible than others: ‘It is evident that the greater the good intended, the more is the sin of lying diminished in gravity.’The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a nuanced understanding (nn 2488–2492) which while affirming the virtue of honesty sets limits on the requirement to reveal the truth at all costs.

Common Good

Doing the Right Thing at Work on the Georgetown University site, might also help Joe reflect on his own responsibility in this difficulty. He might also refer also to a reflection on the Catholic concept of the Common Good and its relationship to business.

Catholic Identity

Finally, although it addresses quite a different issue, Joe may enjoy reading an article by John Wilcox entitled, ‘Business Ethics and Catholic Identity‘, a story about being a Catholic member of staff at St John’s College, New York, and the moral dilemmas posed by Nike sponsorship arrangements with the Sports Faculty of the University.


  • ‘Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2469). Does this mean that Joe doesn’t have to reveal everything in the reference he writes for Stella?
  • According to the summary of Centesimus Annus, how does Pope John Paul II define the purpose of a business? What does he have to say about the role of the manager? What is his view of the human person? Use the answers to these questions to help you imagine what concrete advice the Pope might give to Joe were they to meet.

Respecting Other World Views

Gain a perspective on how other major religions regard business practice and ethics by reviewing some of the following documents:


An insight into Jewish attitudes to business and ethics and work practices emphasises the need for justice and honesty.

Buddhism and Islam

Buddhist teaching on the need for honesty parallels Chritian and Jewish thought. while ”An Islamic Approach to Business Ethics‘ (by Raymond A. Klesc) is an introduction (presented in four parts) to how faithful Muslims do business and a further page suggests that even jesting untruths are frowned upon within the Islamic tradition.


Honesty – arjava is one of the ten controls or restraints recommended to every Hindu while the concept of ahimsa also guides the way a Hindu ought do business. Ethics of Hinduism‘ (by Neria Harish Hebbar) is a general introduction to Hindu belief and orientation. It does not directly address business practices, however it does suggest that Hindu ethics have more in common with what is known in Western philosophy as the virtue ethic than with utilitarianism. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are summed up in the maxim: ‘your business is with deed and not with the result’. 


  • Draw up a grid that compares the Judaeo-Christian business ethic with the Buddhist, the Islamic and the Hindu business ethic. List descriptors under aims, intentions, management styles, attitude to labour, perceptions of honesty. What are the points of convergence and difference?

Examining Personal Experience

Joe might recall other experiences he has had dealing with difficult staff or troubling situations. He could ask himself some questions, such as:

  • Are there techniques I have learned in business to help me make a satisfactory response to the difficulty?
  • How much am I contributing to the office malaise by poor administrative practice or by being unwilling to address the tension within the workplace?
  • If Stella remains with my company, what actions could I implement to change the negativity that characterises office life at the moment?
  • What could I do to help Stella change her approach?
  • Could I persuade the rest of the staff to give her another chance?
  • If Stella goes, will that solve my problem?


After following Joe’s efforts at discerning an ethical response to his difficulty, identify and articulate your own response.

  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.