Do You Need to Be a Heroic Technical Writer?

My recent discussion with an Iowa State University tech writing class was for the purpose of talking about ethics. The discussion also covered a range of other issues, from answering complaint letters to Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Ethics inevitably veers into politics because frequently our ethical problems result from how people in power treat those with less of it.

One of the unspoken subtexts I seemed to hear from the students was, “How often do you run into ethically challenging situations in a technical communication environment?” Another way of asking this might be, “How much call is there to be a ‘heroic’ technical writer?”

The honest answer is: it depends.

Why do we need ethics?

Ethics–guidelines for how humans should behave toward each other to obtain a good result–are there for situations when the answer is not obvious. Obvious situations are usually those where you have the freedom to act when asked to contribute to material that you know is designed to harm other people or where you are asked to commit, facilitate, or ignore a crime. Or, alternatively, there are few ethical problems if you are asked to write something truthful about a product or service that is designed to benefit others.

Ethical considerations come up in situations when knowing what to do is not  obvious. The class and I spent a bit of time discussing Edward Snowden’s disclosure about NSA surveillance and Wikileaks’ sharing of sensitive diplomatic information. People of good and ill intent have provided cogent arguments about whether their actions were ethical or not. My take on Wikileaks (I think the student’s question was about Snowden, so I’m correcting what I said here; my bad) is that while shining bright lights on how your country conducts its diplomacy might be a good thing to some, in other cases revealing the information can and did put other people in real danger. So in situations like those, where whole nations are involved in the equation, some thought should be given to the potential negative consequences of revealing the information–or how it is revealed.

That said, the occasions where you’re likely to face a world-changing ethical issue are rare. Not impossible, but rare.

Working ethically in everyday situations

My attitude toward issues less grave than national security is still to work out situations as honestly, openly, and clearly as you can within the system you are given. That means keeping the secrets you signed agreements saying you would keep. It also means clearly calling someone on their bad behavior or escalating the issue if they do not provide a good answer or cease and desist. If escalation does not resolve a problem then move it up the chain of command. If the chain of command won’t help and no internal ethics committee exists to address a problem, then you take it outside the company, taking with you all the documentation demonstrating that you made good-faith efforts to resolve the problem in-house.

Here some of the typical situations that will call for ethical evaluation:

  • Keeping or divulging secrets
  • Obeying or disobeying the rules/authority
  • Taking or refraining from action

I’ve had situations where a manager wanted to know what was going on with one of my projects. The project team was, in fact, having heated discussions about some engineering issues, but they wanted the content of the discussions kept within the team. Acknowledging a problem without sharing the content would be an ethical way to handle the situation as long as there was nothing critical happening that could affect the organization in a negative fashion.

Alternatives to ethical behavior

It is possible to have an ethical stance that says, “I’m in it only for myself.” You might think that you can do whatever you can get away with because you’re one small person in a very large, profitable corporation. Your “ethics” in this situation would mean that you value advancing your own career or protecting your own reputation over any other consideration. You can proceed this way, but don’t expect to be particularly trusted or well-liked. There are social (karma) costs to thinking this way. If you are perceived to be a shady character, you might find it hard to get or maintain employment. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, you can avoid ethics, but you can’t avoid the consequences of lacking ethics.

And really, if you face an ethical dilemma that you feel is beyond your ability to judge clearly, ask the opinions of reputable people you trust–keeping the details to a minimum–or find a lawyer. It’s a tricky world. You should do the right thing to the greatest extent possible but not (especially if you yourself are not complicit in any wrongdoing) at the expense of putting yourself into jeopardy.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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