3 – Ethics in Workplace Culture and Research

Workplace and Professional Ethics in Technical Communication

Matt McKinney; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; and Gia Alexander

Technical communication occurs within a wide variety of professional sectors, including medicine, law, industry, and academia. In all of these sectors, communicators encounter several potential ethical issues and dilemmas. Whenever you join an organization, institution, or professional community, you should always familiarize yourself with their code(s) of conduct for technical and professional communication. Learning the expectations for your position will help you establish habits that reinforce your skills and practice as an ethical communicator.

Principles of Ethics in Technical and Professional Communication

In addition to specific codes of conduct, there are also some universal principles that technical and professional communicators can rely on to ensure that they apply their skills and present ideas ethically. The Society of Technical Communication (STC) offers six principles as focal points for practicing ethical communication[1]:

    1. Legality. Are you aware of the laws and regulations relevant to your discipline and/or institution? Are you aware of the laws that apply to the scale of your project, study, or business, from local to international, and do you follow them in good faith?

Case Study Example

In 2014, it was discovered that Volkswagen had been violating U.S. emissions laws with their diesel cars for years. The company’s engineers did this by installing “defeat device” software that activated emission-control devices only when two wheels were running, rather than four—a sign that the car was being tested in a lab. As a result, the lab reports detailing the cars’ emission levels contained deliberately falsified results.[2] Because Volkswagen’s corporate leadership violated U.S. law—and pressured their engineers to do so on their behalf—the company’s reputation suffered a huge blow. More importantly, they caused significant harm to the planet by marketing cars that contributed excessively to air pollution.

    1. Honesty. Do you communicate honestly, both orally and in writing? Do you actively strive to provide clarity when your meaning might be misconstrued by your audience, intentionally or not? Do you give credit to the work and ideas of others who made substantial contributions? Do you respect your employers’ time and resources, and avoid taking advantage of either for your own purposes?

Case Study Example

In 2015, former chemistry professor Brian McNaughton of Colorado State University committed forgery. Feeling that he was underpaid, he wrote a fake offer letter from the University of Minnesota’s interim dean to seem like a more desirable scholar. Based on this forged document, CSU made him a counteroffer that included a raise and increased access to lab equipment and other university resources. McNaughton was caught two years later and charged with a felony.[3] Not only did McNaughton ruin his own reputation by forging the letter, he effectively stole money and resources from a state-funded institution (i.e., taxpayers). He also appropriated and misrepresented the professional ethos of the dean from U. Minnesota to deceive his employer.

Other Examples

Accurately reporting expenses and any personal time taken when traveling for work; explicitly acknowledging colleagues’ and coworkers’ contributions to team projects and presentations; not using your work computer for another job or excessive personal use.

    1. Confidentiality. Do you respect the privacy of your clients, colleagues, students, employees, employers, and/or organization? Do you only share private information when legally obliged or with appropriate prior consent from involved parties?

Examples of Respecting Confidentiality

Psychiatrists not discussing their patients’ medical histories; professors not posting identifying and/or pejorative information about students on social media; employees password-protecting their computers and keeping confidential documents onsite and secured.

Examples of Ethical Disclosure of Private Information

Psychiatrists alerting law enforcement about patients who intend to harm others; professors asking students if they can share their work with future classes; whistleblowers alerting federal regulatory agencies about white-collar crime.

    1. Quality. Do your written documents and oral presentations reflect your best work as a communicator? Do you promote transparency and realistic expectations when you communicate, so that you can meet your audience’s needs and perform ethically?

Case Study Example

Since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci has made a conscientious effort to qualify all of his public statements and predictions about when a potential vaccine for the virus would be made available. During that first month, he estimated that it would take “a year to a year and a half” for a vaccine to be developed. Although Dr. Fauci is aware that the American public and government want a vaccine as soon as possible, he is also the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Further still, as a globally renowned medical professional, he is well acquainted with the steps that a vaccine trial process entails before one is safe for public distribution. Consequently, his institutional role and knowledge ethically obligate him to specify any factors or variables that are essential to a quality vaccine.[4]

    1. Fairness. Do you recognize and honor diversity in your organization? Do you ensure that your clients’ and other stakeholders’ interests are served in alignment with the public good? Do you avoid and/or disclose potential conflicts of interest when engaging in professional activities?

Examples of Honoring Diversity

Crafting employee-training materials on different forms of bias (such as bias regarding gender or race); writing and distributing job ads in a way that emphasizes hiring a diverse array of people (from entry-level to leadership roles); monitoring a company’s workplace culture by creating an internal committee or hiring a consultant to investigate progress in diversity.

Examples of Serving Clients and Honoring the Public Good

An architect designing a building that is wheelchair-accessible and uses sustainable materials; a professor who consults with community leaders before assigning a community-based learning project, so that the project is helpful to the community while also teaching students course concepts.

Examples of Avoiding/Disclosing Potential Conflicts of Interest

Coworkers reporting their office romance to human resources; a company recruiter recusing themself from interviewing a close friend or relative.

    1. Professionalism. Do you constantly seek to refine your practice and skills as a technical communicator? Do you demonstrate empathy, respect, and constructive criticism when engaging with others and their technical communication skills? Do you make yourself an asset to the professional and communicative growth of others in your field or organization?

Examples of Professionalism

Establishing clear values and guidelines for technical communication in your organization; reinforcing those guidelines and values for colleagues and subordinates through your own communication; participating in (or organizing) professional workshops, seminars, and/or conferences on improving technical communication skills.

In addition to these six principles, a seventh principle might be considered security. As part of professional and ethical communication, employees need to be aware of the appropriate security protocols (mandated by law or company policy) to follow when releasing information and using company technologies. As companies increasingly rely on information technology to conduct business, cybersecurity is a growing concern. Certain information needs to be encrypted, and employees need to be able to recognize and report phishing attempts, suspicious links, programs with spyware and malware, and other risks. Carelessness with cybersecurity can lead to the loss of a job, besides potential larger negative consequences from malicious actors.

How Bias Influences Unethical Communication

You might notice that most of these ethics violations could easily happen accidentally. Directly lying is unlikely to be accidental, but even in that case, the writer could persuade themself that the lie achieved some “greater good” and was therefore necessary.

Even more common is an ethics violation resulting from the person who is designing the information seeing it as evidence for whatever they understand as true, and honestly not recognizing the bias in how they have presented that information.

Many ethics violations in technical writing are (probably) unintentional, but they are still ethics violations. That means a technical writer must consciously identify their biases and check to see if a bias has influenced any presentation: whether in charts and graphs, or in discussions of the evidence, or in source use or in placement of information.

For example, scholarly research is theoretically intended to fulfill one of two purposes.  Some scholarly research attempts to gather evidence   to evaluate whether a new idea  is valid and contributes to the field. Other research reviews or attempts to replicate previous work to cement its validity.

One example of a groundbreaking study is James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 paper “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.”  Watson and Crick expanded on the work of other researchers concerning DNA as the vehicle for genetic code.  In response to another model for DNA (a triple-helix) proposed by scientists Linus Pauling and Robert Corey, Watson and Crick proposed the double-helix model to convey how DNA transmits genes across organisms.  Their paper was reviewed by other scientists in their field in order to be published in the scientific journal Nature, and after decades of subsequent research their double-helix model is still favored by the majority of contemporary scientists.

As with all human endeavors, however, research is susceptible to bias and error. For example, a recent study on the interrelationship between gender, mentor relationships, and career success in academia received intense scrutiny for its flawed design. Published in the academic journal Nature Communications, the study claims that researchers earlier in their careers (particularly women) tend to produce less significant research the more female mentors they have; therefore, early career researchers should seek out male mentors instead.[5] Many other scientists critical of the study, however, pointed out that the study did not provide a concrete, functional definition of mentorship or senior standing, did not account for institutional bias in favor of men as a factor, and made the false assumption that more citations equals more career success.[6] Subsequent to this criticism, the journal chose to retract the article, nullifying the rhetorical situation and the validity of the communication.[7]

In practice, most folks are primarily looking for support: “Hey, I have this great new idea that will solve world hunger, cure cancer, and make mascara really waterproof. Now I just need some evidence to prove I am right!” However, if you can easily find 94 high-quality sources that confirm you are correct, you might want to consider whether your idea is worth developing. Often in technical writing, the underlying principle is already well-documented (maybe even common knowledge for your audience), and you should instead use that underlying principle to propose a specific application.

Using a large section of your document to prove an already established principle implies that you are saying something new about the principle—which is not true. A brief mention (“Research conducted at major research universities over the last ten years (see literature review, Smith and Tang, 2010) establishes that…”) accurately reflects the status of the principle; then you would go on to apply that principle to your specific task or proposal.

This text was derived from

Hamlin, Annemarie, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, “Typical Ethics Issues in Technical Writing,” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. In Gross, Allison, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva. Technical Writing. Open Oregon Educational Materials, n.d. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Hamlin, Annemarie, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, “Professional Ethics,” licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. In Gross, Allison, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva. Technical Writing. Open Oregon Educational Materials, n.d. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. “Ethical Principles,” Society for Technical Communication, September 1998, accessed August 3, 2020, https://www.stc.org/about-stc/ethical-principles/.
  2. Carlos Santos and Luann J. Lynch, “VW Emissions and the 3 Factors That Drive Ethical Breakdown,” Darden Ideas to Action, October 17, 2020, https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/vw-emissions-and-the-3-factors-that-drive-ethical-breakdown.
  3. Jack Stripling and Meghan Zahneis, “The Big Lie,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 4, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-big-lie/.
  4. Stephanie Souchery, “Fauci: Vaccine at Least Year Away, as COVID-19 Death Toll Rises to 9 in Seattle,” CIDRAP News, March 3, 2020, https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/03/fauci-vaccine-least-year-away-covid-19-death-toll-rises-9-seattle.
  5. Bedoor Al Shebli, Kinga Makovi, & Talal Rahwan, “RETRACTED ARTICLE: The Association Between Early Career Informal Mentorship in Academic Collaborations and Junior Author Performance,” Nature Communications 11, no. 5855 (2020): https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19723-8.
  6. Wessel, Lindzi, “After Scalding Critique of Study of Genders and Mentorship, Journal Says It Is Reviewing the Work,” Science, November 20, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abf8164.
  7. Bedoor Al Shebli, Kinga Makovi, & Talal Rahwan, “Retraction Note: The Association Between Early Career Informal Mentorship in Academic Collaborations and Junior Author Performance,” Nature Communications 11, no. 6446 (2020): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-20617-y.


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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by Matt McKinney; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; and Gia Alexander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.