What Are Key Principles of Ethical Communication?

by Ruth Mayhew ; Updated June 11, 2018
Man giving presentation to colleagues

It is commonplace these days to hear about a company's code of ethics, but ethical communication is often not addressed in the discussion, even though it is a critical element of the company's success. Communication is vital in any relationship, but especially when your business relies on its leadership to deliver clear and consistent information to the workforce. People quickly learn the difference between expressed and real values, and instinctively know when an organization is acting out its values on a daily basis and rewarding people that go the extra mile. Ethical communication should be a top-of-mind priority for company leaders when addressing all stakeholders – whether they are peers, staff, customers or investors.

What Is Ethical Communication?

Ethical communication is fundamental to thoughtful decision-making and responsible thinking. It is about developing and nurturing relationships and building communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels and media. Ethical communication is also accepting responsibility for the messages you convey to others and the short-term or long-term consequences of your communication. Whether you are talking to a close friend or addressing the workforce in an all-staff meeting, your message must be truthful and consistent with your value system. Misleading your listeners and delivering a message that is clandestine or not truthful is the antithesis of ethical communication.

Furthermore, ethical communication might extend to the medium or even the language you choose for delivering your message. Using a medium that limits the audience or delivering a message in a language that your audience does not fully understand, limits how your message is received and perceived. For example, if you are speaking to an audience of primarily deaf or hearing-impaired employees, ethical communication requires having a sign-language interpreter.

When you are not communicating ethically, listeners wonder if what you are saying is true. Lack of ethical communication leads others to question your professional and personal integrity and to wonder if they can trust your message, or even trust you. Once you have lost people’s respect and trust, you must work twice as hard to get it back, and sometimes you cannot, no matter how hard you try. For example, a company president who assures workers that the company will remain family-owned, announces six months later that a large conglomerate has bought the business. She will lose the trust of her employees, and they will doubt anything she says in future.

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However, a Hill+Knowlton Strategies survey on sustainability, transparency and business performance, revealed that 82 percent of the 1,000 respondents believed that a company could regain trust if it was accountable and gave an honest and transparent report on how it was trying to be more sustainable. Turns out the public and employees don't need a company to be perfect, they just want transparency and truthfulness more than anything. Through the process of ethical communication, you should admit you fell short of your goals, which ultimately paves the way to vast improvements in future and support from all your stakeholders.

Principles of Ethical Communication

Ethical communication has several principles or foundational elements. Communicating fact-based messages honestly and accurately is central to ethical communication. Ethical communication values freedom of expression, diversity of perspective and tolerance of dissent. But while ethical communication should be honest and straightforward, it should never offend or provoke listeners.

Ethical communication allows access to the resources and facts that helped formulate the message. For example, if you are sharing information about stock performance, you are obligated to provide your audience with annual reports, filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission or shareholder reports.

Communicating in an ethical manner also requires making the message accessible. This means if you are delivering a message to a large or diverse audience, ensure that you accommodate the languages and listening preferences of everybody. Even though the official language in the U.S. is English, there are millions of visitors and legal residents whose first language is not English. To deliver a message that can be understood by a diverse audience requires engaging linguists or translators who can assist you in making the message accessible to all.

In addition to making the message accessible and respecting the diversity of thought and perspective, ethical communication means being considerate of basic human needs. Avoiding words and language that are demeaning or intolerant and refraining from messages that promote or incite violence is paramount to ethical communication.

Ethical Communication in the Workplace

Communication in the workplace occurs at all levels; supervisor to employee, manager to supervisor and executives to employees – one-on-one and in group settings. For example, a supervisor delivering a performance review to an employee should follow ethical communication standards.

When addressing a high-performing employee, a supervisor must strike the right balance by praising exceptional performance in some areas with ideas for improvement in others. Conversely, a review of an employee who is performing at a mediocre level needs to be candid so that the employee can see their job weaknesses from the supervisor’s perspective, which allows her to focus on improving in those areas. A supervisor must communicate honestly and truthfully to her employees by giving recognition for strong performance and coaching or guidance at times when the employee needs to get back on track and meet the company's expectations.

Support for the company vision trickles down from executive leadership to staff. The messages that top leaders in the company deliver to middle management, line supervisors and staff must be transparent. One of the easiest ways to gain the confidence of your employees is being honest and straightforward with them in all your communications. When leaders are truthful, they earn the support of staff and managers.

Examples of Ethical Communication

Ever wonder why media outlets have fact checkers, especially during campaign season? During the final days of a campaign season, politicians have been known to either stretch the truth or not tell the whole truth to gain support from constituents and donors. Making campaign promises that are impossible to keep is unethical communication. Some politicians struggle with reconciling ethical communication with persuasive communication. In his 2014 article, "Ethical Dilemmas in the Use of Big Data Analytics (BDA) in Affecting Political Communication and Behavior," Kenneth Hacker explores the use of big data analytics within the context of political campaign speeches. Big data analytics or BDA is information that is useful to help organizations, and often individuals as well, make decisions based on correlations, patterns, trends and preferences.

For example, say a politician is trying to garner support in an area that once thrived on the long-gone steel industry. She tells the crowd she identifies with their economic struggle since the death of the industry that left the community without living-wage jobs and blames foreign conglomerates who have usurped U.S. dominance in the steel industry. The politician is preying on the vulnerabilities of the listeners by using BDA to find out what strikes a chord with supporters – the trend of a declining steel industry in that area of the U.S., and the preferences that voters would fare better with jobs that enable them to resume their former lifestyle. This form of political persuasion is not ethical communication because it is not honest or straightforward, and it does not reflect the truth about the U.S. steel industry.

How to Teach Ethical Communication

To engage in ethical communication, you must embrace basic professional and personal ethics. First, your commitment to telling the truth is essential. The American Management Association characterizes ethical communication as "Truth is Job 1," since truth is the most critical aspect of ethical communication. No company wants to relive the Enron disaster where employees were duped by leaders who did not reveal their pensions would be worthless.

Ethical communication may only be taught when the company’s leadership understands the impact of the message. For example, if you are speaking to the shipping department about impending layoffs, you should assume that shipping department employees will share that information with the sales department. The sales department is dependent on shipping to ensure their orders are delivered on time. The message you give to the shipping department employees needs to be inclusive and should consider the impact it will have on departments that depend on its shipping services.

Teaching ethical communication is about teaching ethics and professional and personal responsibility – not just how to speak to employees or colleagues. The content of the message is vitally important, as is the delivery of the message. With so many different modes of communication, it's essential to know what type of information is OK to send electronically versus information that should be communicated face-to-face. Of course, performance reviews and employee disciplinary reviews should be delivered in a face-to-face meeting because the subject matter warrants it. Besides, most employees appreciate receiving positive feedback and constructive criticism in person. On the other hand, it’s acceptable to send the announcement of a day off after Thanksgiving via email to all staff.

Understanding your audience is a critical point in delivering ethical communication. Without a good knowledge of the audience, the messenger can unknowingly offend listeners or even deliver a message that wasn't even intended for that audience. If the messenger is a top company executive, she may need Cliffs Notes from the human resources department to guide her on how best to deliver information that is expected to perhaps be poorly received.

Human Resources Role in Ethical Communication

The human resources department typically is the go-to department for employee communication. HR should be involved in all messages to employees, especially those that come from the highest level of leadership. Paul Gennaro, senior vice president of corporate communications and chief communication officer for AECOM, in an interview with SHRM Online says, “It’s got to be from the HR side – what are the values of the organization? How do we measure performance? Are we reinforcing ethics and integrity? Are we making it part of our culture?” For example, guidance from HR leadership in ethical communication can help the company president to deliver a message that is well-received, hence, Cliffs Notes from HR.

The human resources department is generally responsible for crafting messages that leadership will deliver to employees. HR also responds to employees' questions about the message. For example, an HR staff member might draft a company president's speech and provide her with questions that employees are likely to ask. In addition to writing the speech, HR can also provide answers to anticipated questions, or at least tell the president how to direct employees to the proper source for a more complete answer. In addition to preparing the content of the message and Q&A, HR can prepare the president for delivery of the speech, as in the timing, what she should know about the audience, for example, a small group or an all-hands meeting, and give her tips on how to not become defensive or take personal offense to employee questions. Coaching in this scenario might also include advice for analyzing the body language of the audience members to determine their response to her message.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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