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Five Guidelines for Ethical Business Communications

Do you understand what it means to behave ethically? According to Michael Josephson, there are four principles of ethical behavior: honesty, integrity, fairness, and concern for others. You can think of these four basic principles as the legacy of an imaginary stool. If one leg is missing, the stool wobbles, but if two legs are missing, the stool collapses. If you are not fair or caring, your pride in being honest and having integrity means nothing.

Ethical behavior in business

Lately, ethical business behavior has been a number one concern. In reviewing the events of the past year, it would seem that the words “business” and “ethics” are contradictory terms. Whether you look at Wall Street, mortgage companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or private companies like AIG, never mind that all mortgage companies are being investigated for questionable business practices, the news is grim. It seems that the 1980s mantra “greed is good” never really went away.

Criminal dealings by top businessmen have been uncovered, which should motivate other people to behave more ethically. In truth, however, it commonly acts as an excuse not to change bad behavior. What harm can there be in using your company PC for personal business when your manager uses the company phone for personal long distance calls? When employees see how the company’s management behaves, they are not embarrassed by small indiscretions that they may have committed themselves.

Managers may inadvertently be signaling that unethical behavior will be tolerated when they push a smaller, smaller staff to produce more. When employees feel compelled to meet company goals by any means possible, ethical behavior can be forgotten.

They get the message: “It’s okay to be dishonest, as long as you meet your goals.” As the economy takes us on a rollercoaster ride, we need to assess our own thought patterns to make sure we don’t allow ourselves to indulge in unethical behavior just because it seems like we can easily get away with it. There is always room for improvement in your company communications.

Here are five guidelines to help you communicate ethically (source: “Business Communication, Process, and Product,” Mary Ellen Guffy, 2000):

(1) Be truthful. Statements that are misleading or false should never be made. Nor is it ethical to say partial truths or exaggerate.

(2) Be sure to tag reviews as reviews. Don’t try to convince anyone that something they simply believe to be true is already proven fact. Do the work; Do your research thoroughly and make sure you’re not representing someone else’s opinion as your own.

(3) Show no partiality. Understand that your own subjective beliefs may show up in your writing. Even if your opinions are passionate, ethics require that you be dispassionate in your presentation.

(4) Your communications must be easy to understand. You should write your thoughts clearly, so that they are easy to understand. Make sure the reader can easily understand what he writes. Don’t muddy the waters by using convoluted sentences and all sorts of hard-to-understand industry jargon.

(5) Credit your sources. Do not copy anyone’s work. Most people have the basic understanding that they should use quotation marks if they are using a direct quote from another writer. However, there are a number of people who don’t understand that they also need to properly credit other people’s ideas. You’re still cheating if you paraphrase sentences and add a handful of new words without crediting the author.


Not only must you communicate ethically to be successful in the long run, but you must also be morally correct. Make sure you behave in a way that you would like others to imitate you. If you conduct your business ethically and are successful, other people will follow your example.

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