Basic Ethics for the Technical Communicator

Like most people, when I get cranky I can be tempted to make less-than-wise decisions. This is not a good idea. Ethics are central to a writer’s trade because if we are not ethical in how we handle ourselves and the information entrusted to us, we are unlikely to remain employed for long. Long-time readers might have observed by now that I’m a bit of a stick in the mud on some things, but being picky about my behavior keeps me employed in a high-competence, high-trust organization. I recall telling a college buddy that I wouldn’t go along with some harebrained scheme of his because I didn’t want to screw up my chances for a security clearance. The guy thought I was nuts, but I stayed out of trouble.

So anyway, here are my suggestions when working out the minefield known as corporate ethics. Your mileage could vary.

  1. Don’t knowingly lie. You can’t help it if you are operating with blatantly wrong information, but once you discover it, correct it (see #5 below).
  2. Don’t divulge corporate/technical secrets unless someone’s on a need-to-know basis like, say, your manager–and even then you might be told to keep something to yourself by another, higher authority. If someone asks you about a sensitive topic and you know you’re not supposed to share the information, saythat.(See #1 for clarification.) If you’re in a position of trust, have had a background check, or have a security clearance of any kind, this should be obvious–it’s explained to you.
  3. If you’re in doubt about sharing a particular piece of information, don’t.
  4. If you find someone divulging sensitive information to people who do not need-to-know, report them. The U.S. Military Academies (and the Naval Academy) have honor codes that address this sort of thing. There’s also that motto from World War II: “Loose lips might sink ships.”
  5. Admit it when you’re wrong or have made a technical error. Don’t throw people under the bus. It doesn’t make you look any better and the person you’ve blamed will remember the gesture next time you need something.
  6. Keep your promises.
  7. Use good sources, cite them appropriately, and don’t plagiarize your work. (Caveat on the last item–you’re free to plagiarize yourself all you want if everything’s under your name.)
  8. Only bill for hours worked or work produced.
  9. Don’t air office politics (“dirty laundry”) on the internet. Heck, that’s not just good ethics, that’s good manners! In general, don’t gossip or traffic in corporate rumors, unless you’re in the position of trying to dispel them. I’ve had that job, it’s not fun, but the goal is to prevent problems, not conceal them.
  10. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’d like to think I could do this: if you find that the ethics of your organization are compromised, be willing to go through proper channels as far up the chain as necessary, within the system first. If you still can’t get your well-documented case heard, be willing to be a whistleblower. That, perhaps, is the ultimate example of “heroic technical communication.” It might not make you a lot of friends, but jeez, you have to look yourself in the mirror, right? Or, if you don’t have the stomach for the whistleblowing track, get out of the organization. When the malfeisance comes to light, you can always say, “I told you so.” But there’s no reason to associate yourself with bad people or a bad situation.

Okay, those are my “Top Ten” ethical reminders/suggestions. Your priorities could differ, but your reputation is closely associated with (engineers would say “closely coupled”) your ethics, so they’re worth considering. If you’re interested in the topic of ethics in technical communication, I highly recommend a book by one of my University of Central Florida professors, Paul Dombrowski: Ethics in Technical Communication. The book provides the reader with several different ethics-laden situations that involve tech comm and reviews those situations through several different ethical perspectives, including Aristotelian, Kantian, and ethics of care. They all boil down to pretty much the same thing: “Do the right thing, don’t be evil.”

Just some food for thought.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in Office Politics, philosophy, technical writing, workplace and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Basic Ethics for the Technical Communicator

  1. Matthew Morgal says:

    Great tips! I am often surprised at how effective a willingness to follow basic workplace ettiquete (always be on time, friendly personality, don’t be a jerk) can be compared to actual job skills. I’ve landed a job before by virtue of being early to an interview. – The person scheduled before me didn’t show up remotely on time so they just interviewed me instead of having me wait. It made a good first impression, in any event..

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