Comedian Chris Rock skipped Sunday’s Oscars after telling a stand-up audience last year that he turned down an offer to host.
That “would be like going back to the scene of a crime,” he joked, referring to the “ear slap ‘all over the world’.
“I love Will Smith, all my life,” Rock admitted in his new Netflix special, Selective Indignation. But was the attack, watched by millions of people, too deep a psychic wound for the superstar comedian? It seems that it was, and there’s a phrase for it: ‘moral damage’.
Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay coined the term in 1994. Seeing someone you deeply respect in your field of work violate your code of ethics can lead to lasting distress.
In 2009, Dr. Brett Litz at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Boston expanded on Shay’s concept by adding that moral harm can mean participating in, failing to prevent, observing, or learning about actions that go against one’s convictions.
People in today’s workplace are facing these wounds every day, and business leaders who don’t address them risk losing loyal employees who feel ignored or, even worse, betrayed.
Public interest in moral harm – as measured by the frequency of requests for the term on Google’s search engine – has steadily increased since Litz’s landmark 2009 article and has been referenced by researchers studying occupational burnout in nursing and business.
The ethical transgressions that we witness or fail to prevent in the work environment can cause moral distress: discrimination in salary increases or promotions; co-workers spreading malicious gossip about an intern’s personal life; a manager threatening subordinates to hide the company’s product risks. According to Litz, professor of psychiatry at Boston University, “There are immutable existential impacts of causing severe harm or witnessing severe cruelty or being the direct victim of human cruelty.”
To be classified as a medical problem, the injury needs to impair daily functioning – such as not being able to get out of bed to work. And because the moral damage is ongoing, the scars it leaves pose a risk of accumulating, leading some injured employees to leave the workforce altogether.
It could start with something as simple as a new boss’s selective interpretation of free speech in the workplace. Elon Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist” – but has reportedly fired Twitter engineers who criticized him on social media. The richest man in the world also required them to work seven 12-hour days a week to satisfy his productivity ultimatums. Hundreds give up.
Moral scars are particularly hitting older workers. Many economists attribute the current labor shortage to accelerating demographic change as boomers take early retirement. It’s possible that Statistics Canada’s unemployment rate for job openings recently hit a record high – comparing the number of Canadians looking for work with the number of jobs available – because older workers are opting for early retirement due to layer after layer of moral scars. .
If you’re an older worker or immunocompromised and your employer denies elevated infectious disease risks or long-standing COVID prevalence, you might be inclined to pull the cord at work — for good.
Some groups are at greater risk of moral scarring, including healthcare workers who were told to go back to work when they still tested positive for COVID-19. Many healthcare workers who serve vulnerable populations in private nursing homes have seen clients die from COVID-19, and some blame senior management for putting profits above health risk.
If moral scarring occurs as a rational response to demands made on you that violate your core ethical values, quitting serves as your psychological protection. You leave work to allow new protective tissue to heal your inner scars.
Lincoln Caylor, a corporate crimes litigator at Bennett Jones LLP, says new immigrants to Canada can be disproportionately prone to moral harm when they fall victim to business fraud. “He can’t afford to fight in court,” Caylor said. He is ruined, no longer able to care for his family, and bankruptcy is looming.”
And while moral scars in business negotiations and the workplace are common, they are rarely talked about.
When employees feel that an employer is downplaying the importance of organizational values, they feel betrayed: it destroys their trust in the company. And the company suffers too. As confirmed in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by organizational health expert Patrick Lencioni, an institution that does not trust the team will ultimately fail to achieve its strategic, tactical, or operational objectives.
And giving up doesn’t always heal wounds. Those who drop out often remain emotionally scarred and financially hurt.
My recommendation to managers is to assess trust in their organizations, either anonymously through survey data or using an external consultant. Then report results transparently and track those findings over time.
A leader who works to improve interpersonal trust is someone who can help prevent moral scarring. Building trust can also help a company recruit and retain workers of all ages, regardless of the state of the job market.
In the end, business is more than transactions. It’s about people.