Chapter 4: Ethical Communication in Organizations

4.4 Determining what is Ethical

How do organizations, and individuals with organizations, decide what is right and wrong? Philosophers and ethicists have identified a variety of ethical perspectives that, when applied, affect how this question is answered. Thus, depending of the philosophical perspective used , the answer to any ethical situation may vary.  Below is a brief review of some common ethical perspectives used by organizations when deciding if their actions are ethical (Andrew & Baird, 2005).

Ethical Perspective Basic Premise Organizational Communication  Application
Economic The standard is based on making money Organizations should act and communicate in ways that make the most money for the organization
Legal The standard is based on the laws of the community/society Organizations should act and communicate in ways that follow the laws of the land.
Religious The standard is based on the tenants of a religion. Organizations should act and communicate in ways that uphold the major tenants of the religion.
Utilitarian The standard is helping the greatest number of people Organizations should act and communicate in a manner that does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.
Universalist The standard is whether the person intended to do good Organizations should act and communicate in ways that have the intended outcomes of doing good.
Humanist The standard is based on honoring free will of others Organizations should act and communicate in ways that encourage full, honest, open communication so others can make informed decisions.
Cultural The standard is the cultural practice of a community/society. Organizations should act and communicate in ways that uphold the cultural values in where they are situated.
Situational The standard is the unique characteristics of the situation Organizations should act and communicate in ways that address the central features of any given situation.

Making Ethical Decisions on a Personal Level

I is also  important to discuss how we can attempt to make ethical decisions on an individual basis. There are hundreds of models, but we will review the Twelve Questions Model

Laura Nash, an ethics researcher, created the Twelve Questions Model as a simple approach to ethical decision making.[1] In her model, she suggests asking yourself questions to determine if you are making the right ethical decision. This model asks people to reframe their perspective on ethical decision making, which can be helpful in looking at ethical choices from all angles. Her model consists of the following questions:

  1. What is the nature of the problem at hand?
  2. How would I define the problem if I stood on the other side of the fence?
  3. How did this situation occur in the first place?
  4. To whom and what do you give your loyalties as a person and as a member of the company?
  5. What is your intention in making this decision?
  6. How does this intention compare with the likely results?
  7. Whom could your decision or action injure?
  8. Can you engage the affected parties in a discussion of the problem before you make your decision?
  9. Are you confident that your position will be as valid over a long period of time as it seems now?
  10. Could you disclose without qualms your decision or action to your boss, your family, or society as a whole?
  11. What is the symbolic potential of your action if understood? If misunderstood?
  12. Under what conditions would you allow exceptions to your stand?

Consider the situation of Catha and her decision to take home a printer cartilage from work, despite the company policy against taking any office supplies home. She might go through the following process, using the Twelve Questions Model:

  1. My problem is that I cannot afford to buy printer ink, and I have the same printer at home. Since I do some work at home, it seems fair that I can take home the printer ink.
  2. If I am allowed to take this ink home, others may feel the same, and that means the company is spending a lot of money on printer ink for people’s home use.
  3. It has occurred due to the fact I have so much work that I need to take some of it home, and often I need to print at home.
  4. I am loyal to the company.
  5. My intention is to use the ink for work purposes only.
  6. If I take home this ink, my intention may show I am disloyal to the company and do not respect company policies.
  7. The decision could injure my company and myself, in that if I get caught, I may get in trouble. This could result in loss of respect for me at work.
  8. Yes, I could engage my boss and ask her to make an exception to the company policy, since I am doing so much work at home.
  9. No, I am not confident of this. For example, if I am promoted at work, I may have to enforce this rule at some point. It would be difficult to enforce if I personally have broken the rule before.
  10. I would not feel comfortable doing it and letting my company and boss know after the fact.
  11. The symbolic action could be questionable loyalty to the company and respect of company policies.
  12. An exception might be ok if I ask permission first. If I am not given permission, I can work with my supervisor to find a way to get my work done without having a printer cartridge at home.

As you can see from the process, Catha came to her own conclusion by answering the questions involved in this model. The purpose of the model is to think through the situation from all sides to make sure the right decision is being made.


  1. Nash, L. (1981). Ethics without the sermon. Howard Business Review, 59 79–90, accessed February 24, 2012, http://www.cs.bgsu.edu/maner/heuristics/1981Nash.htm

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