Professional and Technical Writing/Ethics/Legal Issues
Legal Issues and Communication
In business, image is everything. Public opinion of a company affects a consumer's views on that company's products. This, in turn, affects the company's public profit, and essentially its standing. When a company is involved in a lawsuit or a recall, the company has to consider the consequences that these issues will have on their business and needs to consider the costs of repairing the company's reputation. These are among the reasons certain documents are carefully reviewed before being sent to their intended readers. To write ethically, you must also identify another group of people: the individuals who will gain or lose because of your message. Collectively, these people are called stakeholders because they have a stake in what you are writing. Only by learning who these stakeholders are can you assure that you are treating them in accordance with your own ethical values. When crafting your communication think about who will be affected by what you say and how you say it. You have to be sensitive to the following language in a professional document:
•Race and gender roles
Under the law, most documents written by employees represent the position and commitments of the organization itself. There are always legal issues to consider when writing a professional document and they reflect in writing style. Professional documents can serve as evidence in disputes over contracts and in product liability lawsuits. A lawsuit is a civil action brought in court. Today, the average company is involved in 400 lawsuits at any given time. While most companies win their lawsuits, being caught in a lawsuit has many consequences. Lawsuits cost companies time and money. The money spent on lawyers and the time spent in court takes away resources a company could use for improving business and products. Lawsuits also have ramifications for a company's reputation. Recalls can be another legal problem for companies. A recall is when a product is removed from the market or a correction is made to the product because it is either defective or potentially harmful. In most cases, a recall results from an unintentional mistake by a company rather than from an intentional disregard for the law. Sometimes a company discovers a problem and recalls a product on its own. Other times a company recalls the product after concerns are made.
There are a number of reasons why a company may face a lawsuit or a recall. One of the main reasons a company gets involved in a lawsuit is because the directions to the company's product were not clear to the consumer. For this reason, the general guideline is that instructions should be understandable, clear and concise at the fourth to sixth grade reading level. Also, when in a lawsuit, a company has to remember that all documents may be subpoenaed. This means that any document from memos and emails to proposals and studies can be subject to revision by a court of law. Another reason a company gets into a lawsuit may be over a recall. An aspect of recalls are those dealing with safety concerns. Many products are recalled for potential safety concerns, even if no one was actually hurt. To avoid safety recalls, companies need to make sure they consider every possible danger involved with a product. Some dangers may seem to be common knowledge, but companies should be aware of those and label the product accordingly, regardless of assumptions about common knowledge.
Constraints are limits for documents set by the company or industry.As you gather the information that will form the basis for the way you craft your communication, you should also learn about any expectations, regulations, or other factors that may constrain what you can say and how you can say it. In the working world, expectations and regulations can affect any aspect of a communication. Aspects that affect communication are as follows:
•Tone of voice
•Use of abbreviations
•Length of document (as a maximum)
It is important to find out about these constraints and take them into account as you create your communication. Some of these constraints come directly from the employer. Your employer and your readers probably have expectations about the way you write a professional document. There are often, unspoken expectations about how the required elements will be prepared. You are cultivating a company's desire for a particular corporate image, to protect its legal interests, and to preserve its competitive edge. A toy company like LEGO, would not want to be associated with a technical document that includes slang or words that could damage their reputation. They are legally protecting their business. Since all documents can be used against individuals and companies in court, all written documents with the company name should include only professional content that properly represents the company.
Other times, constraints are set by government regulations that determine how certain reports need to be written. Regulations are laws made by the government that affect what is in a document or how a document is written. Writing constraints can originate from outside the company. For example, from government regulations that specify how patent applications, environmental impact report, and many other types of documents are to be prepared. Similarly, scientific, technical, or other professional journals have strict rules about many aspects of the articles they publish. These regulations act as standards for crafting your communication effectively.
Constraints may be set by style issues as well. There should be no clichés and idioms in documents because they may pose a problem with translating documents from one language to another. A cliché is a worn-out or overused expression that tends to sound trite and often doesn't express what you truly mean to say. Examples include: the bottom line is, head over heels, or take it or leave it. Idioms are words or expressions that are specialized vocabulary used by a group of people also known as jargon. Look at the phrases that you use when you write and see if they make sense when translated literally. If they don't, replace them with language that is clear and direct, and will not be misunderstood. Don't use "compound" sentences (and, or, nor, but, however, yet).Opinions and jokes should also be avoided in business documents. Communicate, argue or persuade your readers through facts and data instead of opinions.
Many companies also like to form a "custom" way of writing. Companies like Microsoft want all their documents to be written in the same style and format. The only way to do this is to teach the writers the "correct" way to write in order to portray Microsoft. What many people may not know is that Microsoft does this to cover themselves in a legal trial. If every single document is written using the same format, they can make sure that the customers understand the entire document and do not run into trouble with inconsistencies.
How do you know if you are following the correct constraints? The easiest way to understand how to write in your specific field is to look at documents written by your company and other companies in the industry within the past few months. This will allow you to see their style and how they make their argument. Some companies even publish style guides for writing. By seeing your company's regulations, you can begin to draft your argument. Make sure to follow your company's guidebook (if they have one) to be sure that your style is correct with their recommendations.
Remember that in professional writing you are trying to persuade the reader using an ethical style. This means to avoiding content that will not stand up in court, especially since people file lawsuits for everything these days. Make sure that the documents you write for your company are persuasive while also preserving your company's competitive edge.