For colleagues happily looking at the screen of a laptop

Many years ago, when I was CEO of Brush Dance, my wife asked me to give her the names of some graphic designers and to describe their particular capabilities. I wrote her an email, describing the two designers we used and outlined what I felt were their strengths and their limitations. I then mistakenly sent this email to the designers instead of to my wife. I received a phone message from one of the designers, who was quite upset by having received my email, though I hadn’t said anything particularly negative. While I was thinking about how I should respond to this situation I noticed that I started to feel more and more angry with my wife. I noticed that what was going through my mind was, “If only my wife had not asked me for the names of these designers, I would not have gotten into this mess.” Fortunately, I was able to laugh at myself.

When we practice ethical conduct we acknowledge the reality that we live and work with other people. We all have the ability to cause harm. We all make choices. Our actions have consequences.

Ethical conduct can be summarized in what in Buddhism are called the three pure precepts: do good, avoid harm, help others.

Ethical conduct is a way of describing compassionate activity and is not seen as a list of hard-and-fast rules. Instead, the precepts provide guidelines and a path toward realizing our own natures and toward opening our hearts.

Buddhism also describes what are called the Ten Grave Precepts. Each of these can be applied to our work lives:

  • Not killing. This precept might include not killing time and not killing opportunities to help others. It also might include the necessity of working for peace.
  • Not taking what is not given. This precept includes not taking from others, not taking money, and not taking others’ ideas without acknowledgment.
  • Not misusing sex. This precept includes not being completely honest and open to real intimacy.
  • Not speaking falsely. This precept says to speak the truth, to speak honestly, not to lie, and to speak from your heart.
  • Not giving or taking drugs. This precept says to trust in your mind just as it is, without taking any mind-changing drugs.
  • Not discussing the faults of others. This precept is very important in work settings. It requires not gossiping about other people and not triangulating, saying things to someone about a third person that you have not said directly to this person.
  • Not praising self at the expense of others. This precept advises us not to put others down and to speak in a way that is respectful and that makes others feel their worth.
  • Not being selfish. The precept advises us not to act from a place of tightness but instead to act from a sense of abundance and with an open heart.
  • Not indulging in anger. Although expressing anger can be healthy and useful, this precept tells us that indulging in anger creates harm and disharmony.
  • Not living a life based in practice. This precept underlines the need to frame all activities within the context of practice: doing good, avoiding harm, helping others.

The issue of ethical conduct has become more and more relevant in business and work. Business leaders who lie and steal or do not adhere to real ethical conduct are capable of causing tremendous harm to many people. Ethical conduct in many ways is the backbone for living and working within a life of mindfulness practice.

In an often-told Zen story a student once asked, “Is a completely awakened person free from cause and effect?” The teacher answers, “Yes, a completely awakened person is free from cause and effect.” In response to this answer the teacher is turned into a fox for five hundred lifetimes. This story demonstrates that no one is free from the consequences of their actions.


  • Try to do these 3 things every day at work: Do good, avoid harm, help others.
  • Notice when you are, and when you are not, practicing these three guidelines.