How can we be more ethical at work if we’re not in a position to change our company’s practices (and can’t afford to quit)?

The most direct answer is that you can bring more attention to your body, speech, and mind and notice the times when you are doing good and avoiding harm by being clear, honest, and transparent. You can listen more deeply, give others your attention and time, and look for ways to help those around you. You can also bring more attention to how you may be creating harm—times when you are closed or judgmental, or when your thoughts, words, and actions don’t align with your aspirations for relating to others. Just notice, and cultivate understanding, without judging or blaming yourself.

Questions of ethics at work and the ethics of the companies we work for can raise challenging issues. As a CEO, I’ve been approached by defense contractors and have wrestled with the question whether it is ethical to teach mindfulness to their employees. Although I won’t invest in the defense industry, I have come to feel that raising consciousness and supporting leaders and staff in virtually any industry can help people to be more aware and flexible, and hopefully this training will bring more clarity concerning ethics into their decision making.

I appreciate that the focus of this question relates to ourselves and what we can do. In the realm of ethics, it’s easy to judge, cast blame, and see ourselves as not connected to others. Pressure to perform and meet revenue goals can lead organizations to emphasize the bottom line of profits rather than the other important bottom lines: people and the planet. The introduction of new structures—such as B Corp certification, which measures a company’s social and environmental performance—gives me some hope that ethics will play a greater role in for-profit organizations in the future.

In the situation described by the question, it sounds like the unethical practices of the company are blatant, so you’ve decided it’s time for a change. In the meantime, you can continue to look for opportunities to learn, grow, and become more aligned with your own ethical values and actions.

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