Is your career really ethical?


Career consultant and coach Anna Levy starts a new series of columns on positive impact in work, named ‘Working for Good’. The first installment, asks ‘what actually is an ethical career?’

Can you do more good in the world by choosing a career path such as nursing or social work, where you are directly helping people every day, or by deciding on a route like banking, where you have the potential to earn lots of cash that you can then donate to a worthy cause?

As a career coach, I have often seen this dilemma played out by the recent graduates I work with. Wanting to do something with a positive impact is a clear trend amongst this generation of early 20-somethings, or ‘Millennials’ as they have been tagged by the marketing industry.

Working with purpose

I can imagine that even Hitler had a “sense of purpose”, one can only imagine the missionary zeal in the eyes of the men signing up to the SS, happily joining a “career with a cause” (albeit a downright evil one.)

A sense of purpose in itself, then, is hardly a measure of ethics. It’s also possible for any company with clever branding and inspiring communications to give its new recruits a feeling that they are signing up to a world-changing social mission rather than, say joining an accountancy firm. Take this from EY (formerly Ernst and Young):

“We want to build a better working world through our own actions and by engaging with like-minded organisations and individuals. This is our purpose — and why we exist as an organization.”

Or from management consultancy firm Accenture who say that their aim is to bring innovations that “improve the way the world works and lives.”

(There’s a running joke in HBO series Silicon Valley, where every company’s tagline is basically identical, e.g. Making the world a better place… through paxos algorithms for consensus protocols“).

Now, I’m certainly not saying that any of these corporate organisations are in any way evil or even have a particularly negative impact on society. But, to return to my initial inquiry, if you want to make the world a better place, are you going do it through working in the finance industry?

80,000 hours

Actually, an organisation called 80,000 Hours, launched by two Oxford University students to help young people find “high-impact careers” (referring to the number of years most work in a lifetime) might suggest so.

Basing its assessments on the findings of scientific literature and deep philosophical enquiry, the organisation offers guidance on how to weigh up the ethics and impact of various job choices.

On what they call the ‘earning to give’ approach, such as the decision to work in the field of hedge fund trading, offered as an example of one of the most ethical career choices when done for this reason, they say that:

Some people are unusually well suited to earning money. They can take a high-earning job and donate enough to pay for several people to replace them in the non-profit sector.”

Looking at someone like Bill Gates, or British hedge fund boss Chris Hohn both of whom have used their immense wealth for good and who have arguably had a positive impact that stretches way beyond what either of them could have done as, say, a lone humanitarian worker or a nurse, this is a convincing argument.

Personal effectiveness

I think what’s important is not the judgement on whether one career route offers more to the world than another, but the focus on individual personal effectiveness.

One of the key features of the 80,000 Hours philosophy is the emphasis on finding and maximising our own personal strengths and work preferences, suggesting that this is how we can each have the most social impact.

So for someone like Bill Gates, this might mean writing awesome code, becoming super rich and giving away bags of cash to charity, while for others it may mean tackling local community needs through a social enterprise.


It’s about finding the social mission that really motivates you, and then working out where your individual strengths and abilities would be best directed to make the biggest difference.

In this monthly column, I intend to help steer you through the rocky landscape of ethical career planning, whether you’re trying to make a career change to something more socially rewarding, or are looking for ways to make your current work more impactful.

I will also explore some of the thornier issues around what makes an ethical career and what we mean by ‘doing good’. I’ll be throwing in lots of practical advice and top tips, gleaned from my work as a career coach and background in the social enterprise and not-for-profit sectors.

I hope you’ll enjoy it and that you’ll share your own thoughts on the topics raised. I certainly don’t claim to be the leading authority on ethical living, but I hope to at least raise a few questions and get you thinking about how you might have the impact you want in this one life (or 80,000 hours) we have at our disposal.



Photo credit: Martin Fisch from Flickr