Communicating Ethically

As business practices become more transparent with online presence, and the people behind those businesses become more public, customers and patrons are beginning to expect more from businesses. Businesses are no longer faceless corporations making a profit and paying their investors. Because of this, in order to be successful in today’s environment, a company has to be socially conscious and behave ethically. That’s a trend whose thread is woven into every aspect of business. Communicators should absolutely be cultivating a level of trust and integrity in each of their messages. They should be socially conscious and inclusive in their communications. It’s what audiences expect and, frankly, what they should have.

Guidelines for Ethical Communication

It’s not enough to craft a message that’s clearly understood by an audience, leveraging the seven principles of business communication:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Concrete
  • Correct
  • Coherent
  • Complete
  • Courteous

If you adhere carefully to the seven principles, you should communicate ethically.  On the other hand, if you craft a message that is not clear and concise, or if you use language that skews the information you present to your audience, then you are not being ethical. If you’re not being objective, and you are trying to communicate your opinion (or the opinion of others) as fact, then you are not being ethical. If you purposely do not disclose complete, correct information, then you are not being ethical.


General Motors now admits that over 100 people died because of faulty ignition switches that were not recalled. In an article in Forbes magazine, reporter Carmine Gallo claimed that “Two Misleading Words Triggered GM’s Catastrophic Communication Breakdown.” The article discusses that the ignition issue was mis-labeled as a “customer convenience” issue and therefore didn’t get the attention it needed. Data about the issue was buried in the back of a 72-page PowerPoint deck. These were communication choices made by human beings. Was it a mistake, or was it unethical?

The seven principles of business communication should be enough to keep your messages ethical. But if you want further guidance as to what is and is not ethical in business communication, the International Association of Business Communicators outlines a code of ethics for all its members:[1]

  • I am honest—my actions bring respect for and trust in the communication profession.
  • I communicate accurate information and promptly correct any errors.
  • I obey laws and public policies; if I violate any law or public policy, I act promptly to correct the situation.
  • I protect confidential information while acting within the law.
  • I support the ideals of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas.
  • I am sensitive to others’ cultural values and beliefs.
  • I give credit to others for their work and cite my sources.
  • I do not use confidential information for personal benefit.
  • I do not represent conflicting or competing interests without full disclosure and the written consent of those involved.
  • I do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.
  • I do not guarantee results that are beyond my power to deliver.

If you have any question regarding the ethics of a particular message, these guidelines should serve you well.  Betraying the trust of your audience is lethal to effective communication.

Ethical Communication Online

Ethics for online content are multi-faceted and far reaching, for both posting and using information. Post information online with caution, and always be skeptical about the information you find there.


Don’t post unsupportable information online and, if you do, promptly correct errors. When you post information online on behalf of your business, you owe your co-workers and all your external readers truthful information. When you communicate, you work hard to develop a relationship of trust with your audience, whether they’re reading your words or listening to you speak. Passing along information that’s not trustworthy is damaging to your reputation as much as it’s damaging to your message.

Don’t post questionable information anonymously. Just because you don’t put your name on it doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for facilitating an incorrect, untruthful message. Again, you’re damaging the level of trust you’ve developed for yourself as well as a reader’s trust in the information.

Be careful about sharing proprietary information, information that violates confidentiality or a person’s or organization’s right to privacy. It’s easy to make a mistake and post a picture of yourself and your client and say, “The agreement successfully resulted in a contract!” However, if you don’t have that client’s permission to use her photograph, you err ethically.

Using Online Materials

Fact check information you find online. Sources such as trusted news magazines and newspapers (e.g., The New York TimesThe Economist, etc.) usually don’t publish until their facts have been checked and verified, but if you find information on John Doe’s website, you should definitely research that data further. It’s your duty to report data correctly to the readers in your group or organization.

Don’t appropriate online information and use it as your own. Note that there is “fair use,” under which you can ethically use information for the purposes of research, reporting, criticism, and teaching, as long as that information is documented clearly as belonging to someone else. Otherwise, appropriating online material, including images and video, is considered a violation of copyright law.  The only information you can use, but should still document, is information with a “creative commons” license, and you can only use that information in a way that the license indicates.

The following video offers a four-step approach to communicating ethically, and includes clear, comprehensive examples.

[1] International Association of Business Communicators, “IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.”↵