3 – Ethics in Workplace Culture and Research

Acting Ethically & Responding to Unethical Situations

Matt McKinney and Gia Alexander

While communication plays a significant role in technical and professional ethics, it is also important to understand what it entails to be ethical and act ethically. Most people do not require a textbook to understand that embezzlement and nepotism are unethical; at the same time, these situations do occur, and you may not know how to respond in the moment–especially if you do not have prior experience with them.

To promote effective and ethical responses to unethical situations, most organizations and employers provide recurring job training on some of the more common and egregious scenarios. These scenarios include:

. Whistleblowing occurs when a member of an organization (usually someone of lower rank) reports unethical activity that is pervasive (usually committed by someone of higher rank). This can include fraudulent business practices, sexual harassment, corporate espionage, etc. Unfortunately, whistleblowers are often punished for exposing unethical activity. Should you be in a situation when you are obligated to report unethical activity, make sure you are aware of the protections and resources at your disposal, as well as potential consequences. Conversely, if you are in a position to protect a whistleblower’s privacy and safety (e.g., if you are a journalist), you are obligated to do so.

Respecting and Promoting Diversity. Creating a work environment that values diversity goes far beyond the hiring process. Always defer to the perspectives of communities you are not a member of on issues that concern that community. Whenever possible, make sure that decisions that could affect a particular community are made by members of that community. Understand that diversity issues affect populations in two main ways: treatment and impact. We usually know not to institute policies that deliberately single out a group or individual, such as having a workplace dress code for women but not for men. Do not, however, commit the fallacy of “treating everyone exactly the same.” While doing so may seem on its surface like a fail-safe for promoting diversity, different communities will experience different impacts from that seemingly equal treatment. For example, requiring all employees to have a valid driver’s license, even for those jobs that do not require driving for work, would be discriminatory in that it excludes people with disabilities who are unable to drive, but who do have other adequate means to arrive at work on time. If your organization has a space for members or employees in marginalized communities (such as a campus diversity office), respect their privacy and do not attempt to insert yourself in that space. Make sure that you properly acknowledge and uplift the work of all employees, and empower them if you are in a position to do so.

Ethics of diversity in technical communication go beyond interpersonal communication in the workplace. The documents that we produce as working professionals should also promote diversity in their language and appearance. For example, when creating a brochure that includes pictures of people, make sure that multiple races, genders, and ages are represented in those images. Further discussion of diversity in images appears in Chapter 8.

Careful language choices can also help you be an ethical technical communicator in matters of diversity. For example, it is now customary to capitalize the words “Black” and “Brown” when writing about Black and Brown people. When writing about people with disabilities, it is usually good form to foreground personhood instead of the disability. For instance, instead of writing about “wheelchair-bound people,” write about “people who use wheelchairs.” In the latter, more ethical example, a wheelchair is a tool that people who have mobility impairments can choose to use to improve their mobility.  Likewise, be sensitive to pronoun usage. However, members of some communities, such as deaf people and blind people, may prefer those descriptions. Correct grammatical practice today involves using the pronoun “they” as a singular form in place of older constructs such as “he or she” or “s/he.” For an individual’s pronoun, consult the individual. When writing examples and scenarios that call for you to use names, be sure to use names from a variety of genders, cultures, and communities.

Sexual Harassment. Respect the personal space and privacy of other members in your organization, and never use institutional power to take advantage of a subordinate. If someone in your organization discloses that they were the victim of sexual harassment, encourage them to report it to Human Resources and respect the victim’s right to report. However, also keep in mind that laws such as Title IX require organizations like universities to report sexual harassment whether or not the victim wants this outcome. In those situations, be sure to inform the victim of your obligation to report in advance.

Theft or Abuse of Company Resources. Theft from an organization can manifest in a variety of forms. While we often think of theft in terms of money, such as embezzlement or tax fraud, this can also apply to company property, such as office supplies. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly common for workers to boost their income through freelance work or a second part-time job–i.e., a side-hustle. While there is nothing wrong with doing so, be sure to keep this separate from your main job. For example, do not run your YouTube channel using your company computer or AV equipment. If your second job creates a conflict of interest with your primary employer (such as freelancing for a competitor), you must report that activity.

In all situations where unethical activity could potentially occur, always be mindful of your words and actions; you are responsible for ensuring that you are not enabling or contributing to this activity, even inadvertently. Consider the consequences, short- and long-term, for all people involved in these situations, and be aware of the resources and procedures in place for reporting unethical activity. With luck, you will never have to apply this knowledge, but it is far better to possess it and not need it than the reverse.

McKinney, Matt, Kalani Pattison, Sarah LeMire, Kathy Anders, and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt, eds. Howdy or Hello?: Technical and Professional Communication. 2nd ed. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2022. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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