Executive Summary

Analyzing ethical challenges within organizational communication is important for the success of any company or economy. This paper will define and outline all necessary facets of the ethics of organizational communication so the reader may be better equipped to identify and navigate these challenges. Facets of ethical communication include what ethics and ethical communication is, why an organization needs to develop ethical communication practices, how an organization can develop ethical standards, manifestations of ethical and unethical communication, as well as managing ethical challenges that come up (how to identify them, how to work through them, or how to leave as a winner).  At the end of this paper the reader will be left with some final thoughts on how to proceed with empowering themselves to be an ethical actor within their organization.


This paper will analyze the ethical challenges within organizational communication by classifying ethical issues and introducing evaluation criteria to foster successful interactions for the individual and for an organization. Within organizational communication there are a complex set of ethical dilemmas that deserve to be analyzed and criticized because every day workers in any given business environment will be subjected to making ethical communication decisions. These decisions can be for or against their company’s values. The culmination of these values constitutes the ethical makeup of any company and serve as a good indicator for how employees evaluate their value and alignment within the company. Every time a decision is made from a worker’s choice to communicate, explicitly or implicitly, there are challenges and consequences that stem from those decisions. It has been speculated that a company’s ethics are the bedrock on which many of these communication decisions are made (Shockley-Zalabak, 2015, p. 108-109).

Understanding Ethics and Ethical Communication

To truly understand the ethical challenges within organizational communication a dissection of organizational communication and ethics is a worthwhile starting point. Ethics can be defined as “well founded standards of right and wrong regardless of laws, feelings, religion, society that prescribe what humans ought to do” (Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer, 2015). Whereas, ethical communication can be described as communication which “enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others.” (“National Communication Association CREDO for Ethical Communication”, 1999). With this understanding, one can begin to analyze ethical challenges within organizational communication by asking “why does an organization need to develop ethical communication practices”, “how does an organization develop ethical standards?”, and “what ethical issues will an organization face within its communication?”.

Why Develop Ethical Communication Standards?

Ethical communication standards directly translate into ethical actions and ethical actions can affect an individual’s success, a departments success, a company’s success, and a customer’s repeat business. Without ethical communication standards, a company is sure to not last long due to public scrutiny, employee dissatisfaction, or a combination of both. An example of a company who did not maintain ethical communication standards was Enron (Shockley-Zalabak, 2015, p. 109). While Enron was a large company, its unethical communication practices (i.e. ‘cooking books’) lead to it getting shut down. In the next section, an examination will be made on how to avoid this.

How Does an Organization Develop Ethical Standards?

There are many ways an organization can develop ethical standards. One way is by creating a value statement and the other is creating a culture of ethical communication (Harris, Cummings, & Fogliasso, 2002). Creating ethical standards is only half as important as maintaining ethical standards. There can be a lot of pressure to turn a blind eye to unethical behavior or even partake in it. It is important to note that being aware of unethical behavior in an organization can be almost as bad as committing it yourself. Three ways of developing ethical standards are creating a value statement, taking responsibility to maintain integrity, and creating a culture that incentivizes ethical communication.

Value statements.

 A value statement is like a mission statement but rather than focusing on general business goals it focusses on specific values the company holds. The reason this works is because it sets up value congruence between the individual and their organization; if an employee’s values differ from what they recognize their company’s values are, it is likely they will not remain in the organization for long (Shockley-Zalabak, 2015, p. 111). However, value statements have limited power against intentionally unethical actors in an organization—especially ones in management positions.

Maintain integrity.

Regardless if a company has an established value statement it is up to each employee to not be complicit. Not contributing, enabling, and tolerating unethical behavior is another surefire way to develop ethical standards within an organization. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch; alternatively, one person can work to prevent that at the soonest sign of rotting. An employee in a company who sees unethical behavior has a duty to report it to their manager. If an employee does not feel comfortable doing so or sees that the manager is not taking action it would be in the employee’s best interest to leave the company or position so that they will not be affected by such behavior. Leaving a decent job in a company whose unethical practices won’t straighten out may feel like a punishment but it is likely to decrease job stress and increase career satisfaction in the long term (Kalshoven & Boon, 2012).

Incentivizing ethical communication.

            Incentivizing ethical communication will encourage employees to speak out when they feel something is wrong (James R. Detert & Amy C. Edmondson, 2007). There are many ways to go about doing this such as leaving an anonymous tips box, discouraging retaliation from whistleblowers, and creating consequences for unethical behavior. Consequences can be punishment as well as rewards. To create and maintain a system that encourages ethical communication there is value in monitoring and measuring it (Kalshoven & Boon, 2012). Monitoring ethical behavior can be done by assessing and rating employee behavior based upon an actual scale. Measuring it can be accomplished by analyzing control variables for ethical behavior such as well-being, gender, age, and tenure of the employee within the organization. Consequences can be ostracizing, termination, demotion, and passing on promotions.

Facing Ethical Issues in Organizational Communication

More important than understanding how to define ethics and ethical communication is understanding ways it manifests in business. Starting with the basics, ethical issues can consist amongst these categories: privacy and voice, diversity, persuasion and coercion, and discourse and dialogue. Beyond knowing the categories, one must be aware on how to identify when an unethical behavior is happening and how to conduct oneself through the situation successfully and in an ethical manner.

Types of unethical behavior.

Ethical behavior manifests itself in many ways which was addressed earlier. Knowing the categories is the first step to identifying unethical behavior and leads to overcoming it. For example, privacy and voice is a dichotomy in organizational communication which demonstrates that each trait has a value in business. Privacy may be a manager asking an employee to not disclose a conversation about how a different employee’s performance is, whereas, voice would be that manager giving open feedback and performance reviews to all associates. Diversity rather than being a dichotomy is more of a spectrum which is comprised of many facets.  Age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ideologies all make up what diversity is. Ethical issues in diversity consist of a wide range of things from not hiring someone based upon a physical trait or denying promotions for employees that don’t fall into a certain homogenized vision for an employee’s ideologies and genetic makeup (such as only white, heterosexual, Christian men being able to get an executive position). Persuasion and coercion is another thing to watch out for but thankfully it can for the most part be rather defenseless for those who maintain either their integrity or follow their company’s value statement. Discourse and dialogue, similar to voice, is when an organization promotes an open and free exchange of ideas without fear of retaliation.

How to overcome unethical behavior.

No matter how an unethical behavior is manifested there are guiding principles to overcome it. Unethical behavior can manifest itself in different ways: explicit, implicit, verbal, non-verbal, through advertising, written, and general operational practices. The important thing for a person confronted with unethical behavior to consider is if they are enabling or contributing to the behavior. Even if not directly involved, anyone knowing of unethical behavior and not doing anything about it can subject themselves to seeing the behavior getting worse. Taking action to combat unethical behavior can be confronting those directly involved, reporting it to management, disincentivizing those who are the unethical actors, and leaving the job or company. With the right approach, confronting those involved would be a great way to address unethical behavior because if the approach is effective it could encourage further ethical communication.

Conclusion, Reflection, and Recommendations

      In conclusion, ethical challenges in organization communication are very complex. To overcome ethical challenges, it is important to make decisions that align with your company’s ethics—if they don’t impede on your own morals. Clear communication, setting boundaries, and not tolerating unethical behavior will make you a winner overall, even if your organization doesn’t support it, because in the long term those who do not stand for unethical behavior will still be hirable—while those do are complicity will lose their standing. Aside from perhaps a personal joy that may occur, standing up for ethical communication is a great way to perpetuate ethical decision making in the future, as well as, career happiness. I recommend no matter how hard it may feel to take action and strengthen the moral fibers of your organization it should be a worthwhile pursuit because even if it isn’t appreciated at your company in the short term, you will be more likely to end up at a company that will appreciate it in a career you will be less stressed out from in the long term.


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