Ethics in Business Communication

What you'll learn to do: Discuss the importance of ethical communication

As business practices become more transparent and the people behind those businesses become more public, customers and patrons begin to expect more from these businesses. It's no longer a faceless corporation trudging along 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 to behave ethically.

That’s a trend whose thread is woven into every aspect of business, and that’s not a bad thing. 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.

In this module we’ll take a look at the guidelines for ethical communication and how they apply to verbal, written and online communications.

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify key guidelines for ethical business communication
  • Describe how to communicate ethically online

Guidelines for Ethical Communication

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

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Objective
  • Consistent
  • Complete
  • Relevant
  • Understanding of Audience Knowledge

A number of doors along a wall. Figure 1. How might ethics affect the decisions you make as an employee?

In reality, if you adhere to the seven principles, you will communicate ethically.  For instance, if you craft a message that is not clear and concise, and you use tricky language that manipulates your consideration for your audience’s knowledge, 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 information, then you are not being ethical.

You don't have to look too far today to see examples of unethical communication; they’re all over the media. “Fake news” media sites abound, even though social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are making efforts to prevent them from being posted and shared. Is fake news ethical?

Daily World Update

Daily World Update is a fake news site that recently claimed that “Black Woman Who Won Georgia Primary Arrested for Election Fraud.” The story talks about Michelle Agabobo Willford, running for governor of Georgia, who paid for “tens of thousands of votes” by promising free welfare.This story runs parallel to a real-life story of Stacy Abrahms. Abrahms recently won a primary elections as a candidate for Georgia governor (without paying for votes). Her success made news, because, if she wins, she will be the nation’s first black female governor.

Now, the Daily World Update claims to be a satirical site, and this article about Michelle Agabobo Willford fake, but if this news story is shared on social media, people just see the headline and jump to their own conclusions about what happened in Georgia. Is this ethical communication? Does it meet those seven business communication objectives above?

General Motors

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:[2]

  • 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.

Practice Question

Principles of Ethical Decision Making

After ethical intensity, a thoughtful manager will consider the principles that might apply to an issue. There is no one set of principles to check off, but the seven listed here are common to most people.

  • Legal and regulatory requirements set the minimum standard for behavior. Any company or individual can disagree with the law, but given the consequences, such disagreement must be done carefully. The Hobby Lobby stores refused, on religious grounds, to follow the Affordable Care Act requirements for certain health benefits. The US Supreme Court found in their favor in 2014.
  • Long-term self-interest means the pursuit of outcomes that will benefit the self in the long run. For example, a company must make choices to ensure its continued existence. The costs and harm from failure are substantial.
  • Personal virtue refers to conformity to a standard of righteousness. You should make choices that are honest and truthful individually. The good of the company does not justify lying.
  • Utilitarianism seeks the greatest benefit for the maximum number of people. This is often difficult to judge over large groups of people.
  • Individual rights are related to the freedom to act and think without punishment through regulatory, legal, or societal means. For example, we make individual health decisions to smoke or drink beverages loaded with sugar even though the health costs are borne by many through private and government insurance programs.
  • Distributive justice is the fairness of the outcomes. That is, how are the benefits shared or distributed among the individuals in a group? The US market system can have winner-take-all outcomes. Our welfare system redistributes a little to the losers in the market game who are also part of our society.
  • Religious injunction is the main moral and ethical guide for many people.

Watch the following video for an overview of the ethical decision making process:

Being Ethical Online

If it says so online, it must be true!
That’s the joke of researching and reporting facts you find on the internet. If you believe everything you see out there, then you might believe that the United States has a giant “earthquake gun” and that Bat Boy was an advisor to the Clinton White House. Some of these less-than-subtle fibs are easy to spot and debunk. But other so-called facts aren’t as easy to spot and can sneak into our business communications if we’re not diligent in our fact checking.

Internet ethics are multi-faceted and far reaching. There are ethics to consider when you post to the internet. There are more ethics to consider when you use information you found on the internet. The internet provides all kinds of opportunity to trip up good communicators and drop them right into the middle of an ethical conundrum. Post information online with caution, and always be skeptical about the information you find there!


Don’t post non-factual information on the internet, 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 you 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 patient confidentiality or attorney-client privilege. We talked a little earlier about how the lines between professional and personal communications are blurring. It’s easy to make a mistake and post a picture of yourself and your patient and say, “That kidney transplant has been very successful!” Even if you work for the Cleveland Clinic, that’s not appropriate unless you have the correct forms from the patient saying it’s okay to release that information.  In addition, if you’re a lawyer and your client posts something on your Facebook wall about his trial, that’s also not terribly ethical. Don’t leave it up on your wall. Take it down and contact your client by phone.

PRactice Question

Using Materials from the Internet

Fact check information you pull off the internet. Sources like trusted news magazines and newspapers (e.g., The New York Times, The 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 your reader and your company to report data correctly.

Don’t take things off the internet and use them as your own. If you do not acquire written material, images or video someone else has posted to the internet in an appropriate manner, you are stealing—and stealing is unethical. Now, there is such a thing as “fair use,” which makes it okay to use these materials for the purpose of "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research…”  If you fall into one of those categories, you’re safe. Otherwise, your use of the material is considered a violation of copyright law. Look for the “creative commons” distinction on images and video to confirm that it’s appropriate for shared use. We'll talk more about the use of visuals in Module 5: Visual Media.

  1. International "Association of Business Communicators, \"IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.\""
  2. International "Association of Business Communicators, \"IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.\""

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