In Greek drama, hypocrites are part of the play. “Hypokrites” literally means “an interpreter from underneath.” Actors wear large masks to interpret the characters underneath the masks.
Today, a hypocrite is “any person who wears a figurative mask and pretends to be someone or something they are not.”
On an organizational level, hypocrisy happens when aspects of the organization are incompatible with the image it intends to project. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) described how, in France, the church “systematically denies the economic aspects of its operations by calling them by other names.” A church needs to generate ‘profit’ to sustain its operations. Ironically, the word ‘profit’ should never be mentioned. Or else, this will alienate its ‘customers,’ the believers. From a believer’s perspective, the church should be spreading the faith, not ‘marketing’ its activities.
Therefore, hypocrisy is inevitable.
Similarly, businesses suffer the same psychosis. Primarily organized for profit, business organizations of late have been made to believe that they have to maintain a veneer of ethics and social responsibility. Aside from satisfying the shareholders, they also have to pacify the other stakeholders. Businesses that desire to be perceived as socially responsible are encouraged to submit corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, in addition to annual reports.
Shareholders are primarily concerned with profits. They are the intended audience of annual reports. CSR reports, on the other hand, are intended not only for shareholders, but also for NGOs, local governments, media, and employees. For the latter, businesses have to satisfy both audiences in the same document.
Depending on their intended audience, businesses can shift roles and act out different scripts. However, sincerity and credibility are at risk when communication will be made to more than one party, with different interests, at the same time. In other words, a business has to satisfy concerns of both shareholders and society regarding its activities.
Therefore, hypocrisy is necessary.
One study collected CSR reports published by 50 corporations with the largest turnovers in the world. These corporations included GE, Samsung, AXA, General Motors, Honda, Total, HP, Toyota, among others. The intent was to examine how these businesses communicated both profit and CSR targets within a single report.
Using linguistics content analysis of the texts, the results show that euphemisms play a “significant role” in the reports. Euphemism is defined as “the use of a mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable use.”
According to the study, potentially ambiguous or disagreeable terms to either party were replaced. These terms are: employee, corporation, strategy, stakeholder and community.
Instead of “employees,” the reports used people, volunteer, steward, teammate, hero, champion, or associate.
“Corporation” was replaced with the more amiable sounding neighbor, home, corporate citizen, or champion. To soften the aggressive connotation of “strategy,” passive words like philosophy and spirit were preferred.
“Stakeholders” were referred to as people or neighbors. And the “community” was called a neighborhood.
Whether the intention is to sugarcoat or spin, the use of euphemisms makes it possible for businesses to satisfy two conflicting parties at the same time. Meanwhile, they avoid being “caught in the act of hypocrisy.”
Similar to Greek drama, hypocrites are essential in business. And the famous ones have always been tragedies. Well, the tragedies.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategy and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives can be accessed at realwalksonwater.wordpress.com. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.