Ethics in Communication

Cite this article as:"Ethics in Communication," in The Business Professor, updated October 1, 2019, last accessed July 7, 2020,

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Ethics in Communications

Ethics are strategic forces that influence (and constrain) communications. Ethics refers to the principles of right and wrong that guide you in making decisions that consider the impact of your actions on others as well as yourself.

Ethics vs. Laws

Ethics are distinct from laws. Ethics are principles derived from an internal sense of right and wrong. Law is handed down by a governing body. One may feel that obeying these laws is ethical or not.

Sources of Ethics in Organizations

Organizations are made up of individuals. Nonetheless, they take on an ethical perspective to which employees are expected to abide. Some of the primary sources of ethics within a business organization include:

  • Code of Ethics – The organization may develop or adopt a specific code to which employees must adhere. To the organization, this is internal. To the individual employees, this ethical code is similar to laws handed down by a governing body.
  • Stakeholder Interests – Organizations exist under state law to serve the interests of owners and other stakeholders. Serving the needs of these stakeholders may influence the ethics or principles of right and wrong adopted by the corporation.
  • Ethical Frameworks – Sometimes organizations develop loose frameworks for what is ethical behavior. These frameworks are less formal and specific that codes of ethics. They provide a method for employees to evaluate a decision to determine whether an option is ethical.
  • Personal Values – As we said, organizations are made up of individuals. These individuals have personal values or ethics that will affect their actions. In this way, the ethics of the individual become the ethics of the organization.

Causes of Illegal or Unethical Behavior

Business organizations are prone to unethical behavior by individuals who have a differing code of ethics than that of the company or society (the law). Some of the drivers of this propensity include:

  • Excessive emphasis on profits
  • Misplaced corporate loyalty
  • Obsession with Personal Advancement
  • Expectation of Not Getting Caught
  • Unethical Tone Set by Top Management
  • Uncertainty about Whether an Action is wrong
  • Unwillingness to Take a Stand for what is Right.

Sample Frameworks for Analyzing Ethical Dilemmas

  • Dimension 1: Behavior that is illegal and unethical. You are expected to know these areas of your job and to avoid them. For example, most criminal conduct that harms another person would fall into this category.
  • Dimension 2: Behavior that is Illegal, yet ethical. For example, housing immigrants who enter a country illegally to flee poverty or violence may be ethical, but it is illegal.
  • Dimension 3: Behavior that is legal, yet unethical. For example, withholding lifesaving drugs from those in need because intellectual property rights prevent unlicensed production of the drug is legal. But allowing those who cannot afford to purchase the drug to suffer or die is unethical.
  • Dimension 4: Behavior that is both legal and ethical. This is the majority of conduct which human beings undertake. The actions comply with law, corporate policy, and your personal and professional codes of ethics.

Ethics when Communicating

Your audience expects you to treat them with respect, and deliberately manipulating them by means of fear, guilt, duty, or a relationship is unethical.
Deception can involve intentional bias, or the selection of information to support your position while framing negatively any information that might challenge your belief. Bribery involves the giving of something in return for an expected favor, consideration, or privilege. Coercion is the use of power to compel action. Below are some ethics proposals by Richard Johannesen to consider when speaking to persuade. Do not:

  • Use false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted or irrelevant evidence to support arguments or claims.
  • Intentionally use unsupported, misleading, or illogical reasoning.
  • Represent yourself as informed or an “expert” on a subject when you are not.
  • Use irrelevant appeals to divert attention from the issue at hand.
  • Ask your audience to link your idea or proposal to emotion-laden values, motives, or goals to which it is actually not related.
  • Deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose, by concealing self-interest, by concealing the group you represent, or by concealing your position as an advocate of a viewpoint.
  • Distort, hide, or misrepresent the number, scope, intensity, or undesirable features of consequences or effects.
  • Use “emotional appeals” that lack a supporting basis of evidence or reasoning.
  • Oversimplify complex, gradation-laden situations into simplistic, two-valued, either-or, polar views or choices.
  • Pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate.
  •  Advocate something which you yourself do not believe in.

Avoiding Fallacies when Communicating

Fallacies are another way of saying false logic. These rhetorical tricks deceive your audience with their style, drama, or pattern, but add little to your speech in terms of substance and can actually detract from your effectiveness. Some examples of fallacies include:

  • Red Herring – Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue, particularly by relating the issue to a common fear.
  • Straw Man – A weak argument set up to be easily refuted, distracting attention from stronger arguments
  • Begging the Question – Claiming the truth of the very matter in question, as if it were already an obvious conclusion.
  • Circular Argument – The proposition is used to prove itself. Assumes the very thing it aims to prove. Related to begging the question
  • Ad Populum – Appeals to a common belief of some people, often prejudicial, and states everyone holds this belief. Also called the Bandwagon Fallacy, as people “jump on the bandwagon” of a perceived popular view.
  • Ad Hominem – Argument against the man” instead of against his message. Stating that someone’s argument is wrong solely because of something about the person rather than about the argument itself.
  • Non Sequitur – “It does not follow.” The conclusion does not follow from the premises. They are not related.
  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc – After this, therefore because of this,” also called a coincidental correlation. It tries to establish a cause-and-effect relationship where only a correlation exists.

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