Before examining the issue of ethical vs. unethical communication, one has to answer the question of – what are ethics? Unfortunately, such seemingly simple concept as ethics has puzzled philosophers for centuries. It seems as though mankind has been searching for the right answer for some time now, and yet there are still those that disagree. Exactly what are ethics? What is ethical and unethical behavior, and how does it reflect in an organizational setting?
Ethics are theories that address Socrates’ question of “how we ought to live” (Paul, J., Strbiak, C., 1997). As many people agree, ethics is essentially a study of what is wrong and what is right. Thought ethics seems to be a simple concept, many people disagree on what is and isn’t ethical. There are various views on the subject. For example, Immanuel Kant “conceived of right action as acting with right intention” (Paul, J., Strbiak, C., 1997). On the other hand, others agree that ethical is what rational people accept for their mutual benefit. In other words, if a reasonable group of people accepts a certain action as ethical, that action in fact is ethical. To complicate the matter even more, many philosophers believe that there is no such thing as universal and moral truth, but rather a set of cultural values instilled on an individual by a given culture and society. Furthermore, a theory called ethical egoism “is based on the view that people ought to do what is in their self-interest” (Paul, J., Strbiak, C., 1997). Thought it is apparent that the question of ethics is a complicated one, ethics and ethical behavior (or communication) has to eventually be applied in the real world.
Without examining the philosophical aspects of ethics, most people generally know what is and isn’t ethical. In all likelihood, ethical behavior is any action based on right intention (as Kant puts it) coupled with given cultural values of the region. For example, most reasonable people would agree that stealing, lying, and cheating is unethical. Such concepts could easily be translated into an organizational environment. For example, if a company in financial trouble lies to its employees while painting a rosy picture about the organization’s future, the behavior will in most cases be considered unethical. Additionally, it would be considered unethical to misguide potential job applicants about the company benefits or stock options. Because lying seems to be a universal concept of unethical conduct, the above examples would probably qualify as an unethical communication. On the other hand, is it unethical to monitor employee email? It is unethical to monitor employee phone conversations? One could argue both ways, because the definition of these actions is not clearly defined. In such case, no one is lying, or cheating, yet over fifty-seven percent of CEOs in corporate America consider such actions unethical (PR Newswire, 2001). It is because of such blurry lines that ethics remains to be an open-ended case.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are those organizations that clearly act in an ethical manner. There are those companies, that keep employees informed even thought the information presented my be difficult to hear (Linderborg, R., 1994). For example, ethical companies communicate the truth about their poor financial status even thought concealing the painful truth would be easier. Additionally, ethical organizations trust and respect their employees while insuring that employees have a certain control over decisions affecting them (PR Newswire, 2001). While talking about ethical vs. unethical communication of organizations, one needs to understand that untimely the individuals of the organization are responsible for the organization’s ethical standing. If the CEO of a company lies to its stakeholders, it would seem that the organization as a whole is unethical. It is because each employee represents his or hers organization, it is important that all employees are of good morals while it is imperative that the officers or highly visible employees excel in ethical behavior.
In summary, it is rather difficult to define ethics, let alone discuss ethical vs. unethical behavior. However, because any society needs to be able to distinguish between ethical vs. unethical behavior, a certain set of norms have been formed that help people guide them on the path to morality. Thought the set of norms and values are a helpful guide, ethics remain to be discussed because many people disagree on what is and what isn’t ethical. Such discussions will inevitably self-perpetuate because of cultural, moral, and individual differences between people – after all, we are human.
Linderborg, R. (1994, Spring). Excellent Communication Public Relations Quarterly. [InfoTrack] University of Phoenix Online Collection. Available: http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/session/ (2001, May 2).
Paul, J., Strbiak, C. (1997, April). The ethics of strategic ambiguity. The Journal of Business Communication [InfoTrack]. University of Phoenix Online Collection. Available: http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/session/ (2001, May 2).
PR Newswire. (2001, April 30). CEOs in Marymount University Study of N. Va. Tech Companies Say Small Firms More Effective at implementing Ethical Practices Than Big Companies. PR Newswire [ProQuest] University of Phoenix Online Collection. Available: http://proquest.umi.com: (2001, May 2).