It’s a word that many people don’t take very seriously anymore, yet it names a concept well worth keeping in mind, both on and off the job.

The word is sin. Many of us first heard this word as kids when we were learning right from wrong. It may have come up in lessons about the Ten Commandments from our parents, Sunday school teachers or catechists. We were told that sin is an offense against God. Now, as working adults in the business world, we might occasionally encounter this word used in a figurative sense, such as a seminar called “How to avoid the seven deadly sins in shopfloor inspection,” or as a casual remark, as in “The new color of the breakroom is a sin against good taste.” Used this way, sin means simply a bad mistake or a grave error in judgment.

Of course, in business settings, we’re not likely to use this word in its biblical meaning. That sort of reference is probably out of place in the strictly secular atmosphere of our workplaces. I don’t think it’s a good idea to start talking about this kind of sin in everyday conversations at work.
I suggest, however, that thinking about sin in this deeper, more serious meaning would be a useful and appropriate thing to do on the job. Such thinking strengthens a sense of personal moral responsibility and an acceptance of accountability, both public and private. Better behavior at all levels of an organization is likely to result.
Here’s my point: the habit of evaluating every action (or neglectful inaction) against a transcendent moral authority would serve us well on the job. How we perform our duties and conduct our business affairs would take on a cosmic significance. We would perceive our choices, then, as affirming or disrupting a bond to the universe and all our fellow creatures. Some of these disruptions might be trivial; others might be profound, with life-or-death consequences. Whether great or small, every sin causes some degree of disorder.
Many standards of “right” behavior exist, such as the laws that govern civil society and various religious teachings (though we must admit that the latter bind to the level of one’s personal commitment). Some formulas are specifically intended to apply in the workplace. Our corporate mission statements, professional codes of ethics, safety guidelines and employee handbooks are examples. An awareness of sin creates a loftier dimension to our compliance or noncompliance.
It becomes a matter of conscience, that innermost awareness of self-respect and personal rectitude. That’s why sin entails a sense of indebtedness, shame, guilt and need of reconciliation. The effects of any willful rule-breaking or violations of the law don’t end simply because we “didn’t get caught.” Some ineluctable imbalance or alienation lingers and calls to be addressed. Of course, this is most keenly felt by those of us who believe in an eternal, divine Justice by which we will ultimately be judged.
The disorder from sin appears in many forms. All sorts of injury, pain, scandal and conflict are a few of its signs. Much of this harm to the inner being and outer world could be avoided if we had had this thought at the moment of choice and heeded it: “To do that would be a sin.” No need to talk about what you’re thinking, though. It’s enough to have it in mind.