Professional and Technical Writing/Ethics
Ethics and Technical Communication
As you put together professional documents and begin working in the “real” world, you must understand what could easily lead to your downfall in your professional workplace. The Paul Anderson text claims that at work in a professional setting, there at least three major “sources of guidance”:
- The code of ethics already developed by your field’s professionals,
- The ethical code set in place by your company, and
- Your own personal ethics.
Some companies have decided to have employees keep their personal ethics at home. In reality, companies that try to keep personal ethics at home find that employees are occasionally asked to perform actions that they do not condone at home. In professional settings we would like to assume that companies would not act unethically, so why should we even pay attention?
The truth is, companies do act unethically whether it is disposing of toxic waste incorrectly or price gouging to name a few. The same goes for writing professional documents. You should keep them clean and standardized to save yourself from damaging a possible job opportunity and the name you represent.
Ethics and Resumes
Resumes present a unique case in professional writing as they relate to ethics. In the work place, it is considered unethical if you do not present all the information related to a given project, good and bad. However when writing your resume, there is a common understanding that only good information will be included. While not including negative aspects is acceptable on a resume, including extra items that you did not accomplish is not.
When writing your resume, it is obvious that you should not lie. In today’s time, it is very easy for a prospective employer to go online, call a current or past employer, or call a reference to find out what kind of work you did. Lying in your resume will hurt you. Not only could you be rejected for a job, you could also be selling yourself for a position that you are not qualified for. For example, writing that you are experienced with Microsoft Office 2007 even if you have little experience could lead to frustration at work, poor performance reviews, or even losing your job.
Here are tips for keeping your resume within ethical boundaries:
- List only the jobs you have actually held and what you did at the job.
- Do not elaborate on your education. State only the schools you attended and the degrees you have completed.
- Provide correct statistics about positions you have held. If you do not know the actual data, give a plausible range of data.
- Do not take credit individually for something accomplished as a team.
- Do not write in a way that is intended to mislead the reader.
- Do not provide references that have not agreed to be listed as one.
Possible future employers do have the right to run a background check on you with your approval. In this background check, the company will go through and call your previous employers. They will ask if you:
A) worked for them, and B) what type of employee you were, if the possible future employer wishes.
If you are unsure about a certain fact or number, do not guess. Call your previous or current employer and ask them to clarify. Also, make sure anything you put on your resume can be supported by evidence. If you claim you worked 7 different shifts in a previous job, you should be able to list all 7 of those shifts in case you are ever asked.
NEVER lie on your resume! It is one of the first impressions you are able to make on a potential employer, and you obviously want to leave a lasting impression. Lying on your resume or even stretching facts will not help you in the long run. Remember that you are the brand you are selling. Nothing is more important than the image you want to project.
When writing any professional document, it is important to identify the potential stakeholders. A stakeholder is anyone who will be affected by what you are intending on writing. How you choose to word your document or even the choice to write the document becomes an ethical matter to stakeholders. It is crucial to consider your main objective(s) before writing. If you are writing a document that would be used to harm other living things (like writing a manual for a handgun) you have to weigh the implications to all stakeholders impacted. According to the Paul Anderson text, there are three types of stakeholders: direct, indirect, and remote.
The direct stakeholders are those initially impacted by what you write. For instance, if you are writing about opening a new waste disposal area, the stakeholders clearly include the company you are writing to. However, disposal companies that might use this waste area in the future are also considered direct stakeholders. Their future business will be impacted based on whether your proposal is accepted or declined.
The indirect stakeholders are those that are not impacted until a later time. Using the previous example of the waste disposal, citizens in the area would be indirect stakeholders. The stakeholders don't necessarily need to be people. The nearby eco-systems would be indirect stakeholders to this same proposal. If toxic waste is dumped there, it would harm the animals, rivers and plant life nearby.
Finally, the remote stakeholders are not affected until far into the future. One example following our hypothetical waste disposal area, is future generations. While it may seem far-fetched, historically, there have been instances where toxic or poisonous things have been disposed of incorrectly and the run-off that went into lakes and streams caused birth defects. While this is remote, it must be considered when writing a document.
Once on the job, you will be assigned to create many documents throughout your professional career. Some may be simple and straightforward, some may be difficult and involve questionable objectives. Overall, there are a few basic points to adhere to whenever you are writing a professional document:
- Don't mislead
- Don't manipulate
- Don't stereotype
This has more than one meaning to the professional writer. The main point is clear. When writing persuasively, do not write something that can cause the reader to believe something that isn't true. This can be done by lying, misrepresenting facts, or just "twisting" numbers to favor your opinion and objectives. This is clearly different from the resume ethics. Once you are on the job, you cannot leave out numbers that show you're behind or over-budget on a project, no matter how well it may work once it is completed. Facts are facts and they must be represented in that way. Be cautious when using figures, charts and tables, making sure they are not misleading. While this may seem easy to read about, when the pressure is on and there are deadlines to meet, taking shortcuts and stretching the truth are very common.
The other, less frequently used component is plagiarizing. While it may seem like this is something students learn to avoid after they graduate, it remains an important guideline for all professionals. Plagiarizing is misrepresenting the source or facts, most commonly when you claim the ideas you are writing about are yours. When you are researching professional documents, make sure you are using material with permission. If you are writing about what you've researched, make sure you are citing the sources of your information and giving credit to all the necessary researchers. This rule also extends beyond writing to what is referred to as intellectual property. Intellectual property includes the following:
- Patents - Items whose credit for creation is protected
- Trademarks - Company names (WalMart), logos (the Target bulls-eye), or slogans (I'm lovin' it)
- Copyright law - Items whose distribution is protected by law (books, movies, or software)
None of these things can be used without proper recognition of or approval from the appropriate company or individual involved.
This law extends beyond the major companies. Any written document in your own company is copyrighted by law once produced. That means if you are borrowing a good idea from a friend at another company, you must cite them as a source. Also, although not required by law, it is a good idea to cite sources from inside your own company as well. You wouldn't want some one else taking credit for your ideas. Why should you treat others any differently?
The legal consequences are most notable when one considers writing in the professional world. While plagiarizing may give you a failing grade in a class, plagiarizing in the workplace can not only get you fired, but could result in a costly lawsuit or possibly even jail time. It is not only ethical to follow these rules, it is an enforced law. Make sure you properly document all sources so as not to mislead a reader.
If you are holding a professional job, it is understood that you have a decent ability to write persuasively, even if your first persuasive document was your resume. Do not use your ability to persuade people to do what is not in their best interest. While this may not always seem easy, a good writer with a bad motive can twist words to make something sound like it is beneficial to all parties. The audience may find out too late that what you wrote only benefited you and actual ended up hurting them. This goes back to the stakeholders. Make sure they are not only considered and cared for when writing a persuasive document. It is easy to get caught up in the facts and forget all the people involved. Their feelings and livelihood must be considered with every appropriate document you create.
Most stereotyping takes place sub-consciously now since work places are careful to not openly discriminate. It is something we may not even be aware we are doing, so it is always a good idea to have a peer or coworker proofread your documents to make sure you have not included anything that may point to discriminatory assumptions.
Addressing Unethical Practices
Many times in the professional setting, workers find it difficult to deal with unethical practices in their company. First, begin by bringing the unethical practice to the surface, which is usually the hardest part. Paul Anderson's text reviews three ways that you can bring your company's practices to the surface. It is easiest to first start asking questions. Asking questions may seem too simple but it is an effective way of bringing attention to your company's problems. Ask questions about who their decisions are affecting and why they are making those decisions. This will not put you on the spot for being the bad guy, but it will allow you to voice your opinion.
The second idea Anderson describes as being helpful in revealing unethical practices is to use facts or reason, instead of accusation. Before you raise questions about your company's unethical practices, make sure you have cold hard facts instead of accusations. Many times accusations are made about situations where people truly do not know the reason those decisions were being made. If you base your thoughts around true facts, your company will assume you looked into the situation and will take your thoughts more seriously.
The third helpful way to bring your company's unethical practices to the surface is to remain open to others ideas. What this allows you to do is base a solution around many different sides instead of just your own. Since people usually have different ethical values, your own stance may not coincide with everyone elses'. Make sure you identify possible values of others when considering possible solutions.
Employing Ethical Techniques
In professional writing, ethical dimensions begin to surface especially in persuasive writing. When you are trying to persuade other people to make a certain decision or to take action, stay clear of manipulation and misconceptions. At times, you may be misleading someone unintentionally. In persuasive writing, you must respect the readers values and viewpoints. Do not use false or skewed facts or argue from such premises because you may deceive the reader(s) and cause them to make an unlawful decision.
Avoiding manipulation when writing persuasively is also key. Sometimes you may be aware of the readers point. If so, you must make sure not to use this personal information against them in your writing. It is unethical to persuade readers to make a decision that benefits yourself and not them. Most times, people try to manipulate others to receive some type of reward or gain.
To avoid using misleading or manipulating words and phrases, it is important to be open to alternative viewpoints. In preparing any type of persuasive writing, you will come across conflicting viewpoints, so being aware of other views should not be hard. Keep your readers' ideas and goals in mind and consider what lies behind their concerns. To help solve these problems it may also be good to make statements based on human values. Discussing several opinions and ideas on the subject will make you more persuasive, because most viewpoints will be included to prevent you from appearing biased.
Legal Issues and Communication
This section presents information about legal aspects of communication which will help ensure that your writing is free of legal concerns.
Appreciating Different Cultures
This section discusses the importance of considering diversity when writing because our world is multicultural, and your writing needs to reflect our world in that regard.
Ethics Decision Checklist
- What is the nature of the ethical dilemma?
- What are the specific aspects of this dilemma that make you uncomfortable?
- What are your competing obligations in this dilemma?
- What advice does a trusted supervisor or mentor offer?
- Does your company's code of conduct address this issue?
- Does your professional association's code of conduct address this issue?
- What are you unwilling to do? What are you willing to do?
- How will you explain or justify your decision?