Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva) is the practice of earning a living in a mindful and compassionate manner. At its foundation is not violating the Five Precepts. The Five Precepts teach us not to kill, not to steal, to abstain from sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to use mind-altering substances. In making our living, we must not violate these precepts. It has been explained by one of my teachers as not harming others in the way you make your living. We should not deal in arms, human beings, meat, intoxicants, nor unlawful labor.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says on page 104 of his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings, "To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living."
As the Fourth Precept says, we should abstain from using false speech. As discussed in the Five Precepts article, this is more than simply not lying. It also involves not using half-truths nor exaggerating. We must be careful that our professions do not require us to violate this precept of honesty. If we are to observe Right Livelihood, we must make our living through honesty and Right Speech.
We also must observe the Second Precept and not participate in stealing in our work. More than just not stealing, we must "not take that which is not freely given to us." Obviously, we should not steal from our employer, co-workers, or employees. We also must be conscious of the social impact of the business or industry we are in. If we are hoping to learn to live in Right Livelihood, we must not work in businesses that utilize inhumane labor, deceive customers or suppliers, nor take advantage of the ignorance or cravings of others.
In earning our living, we must be mindful of the people we may be harming. Are we dealing in weapons, intoxicants, or breeding ignorance? Our jobs cannot cause harm on others; we must be compassionate and loving with our work. Practicing loving-kindness in our career, we cannot possibly harm others in any way.
One important aspect of Right Livelihood is our work attitude. We must not waste our employer's time by doing other tasks while on the clock, give co-workers negative attitude, nor come late and leave early. Essentially, we must practice Right Effort in the workplace. Keeping a right attitude is very important to right livelihood, as we must work with mindfulness and love.
All in all, Right Livelihood is the practice of earning a living with mindfulness, compassion, loving-kindness, and respect.