Chapter 4: Ethical Communication in Organizations

4.1 Ethical Domains

Domains of Organizational Ethics

One could easily be misled into thinking that the idea of ethical business behavior and practices is a creation of the 21st Century, but the discussion of ethical and unethical business behavior is as old as the marketplace itself. While there may appear to be a difference in ethics between individuals and the organization, often individuals’ ethics are shown through the ethics of an organization, since individuals are the ones who set the ethics to begin with.[1] Thus, if an organization believes in creating a culture of ethics,  it is more likely to hire people who behave ethically.[2].  One way to think about organizational ethics is to consider two broad domains within which organizational ethics occur: external ethics (behaviors that occur between an organization and various constituents) and internal ethics (ethical behaviors that occur among the employees of an organization).

External Domain

Organizations decisions and actions impact individuals beyond the employees. An organization’s customers, vendors, competitors, community and the world can all be affected by the ethical decisions of an organization.  Questions such as the morality of child labor, environmental impacts, outsourcing, and social responsibility are examples of external ethical issues. We know, however, that organizations don’t always make ethical decisions, despite the seemingly best efforts of a company. For example, court papers accuse British Petroleum (BP) of gross negligence for safety violations and knowingly failing to maintain the oil rig, which caused the death of eleven workers and leaked oil in the Gulf of Mexico for eighty-seven days.[3] In this case, and others like it, people question the ability of companies to fulfill their duty to society. An alternative example, however, is Tom’s Shoes; an organization that believes it is their responsibility to ensure everyone has shoes to wear. As a result, their “one for one” program gives one pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair of shoes purchased.

Organizations also make ethical decisions that affect customers, suppliers, and people within the community. Examples of this include fairness in wages for employees and the notification of the potential dangers of a company’s product. McDonald’s was sued in 2010 because the lure of Happy Meal toys were said to encourage children to eat unhealthy food.[4] This is a stakeholder issue for McDonald’s, since it affects customers. Although the case was dismissed, the stakeholder issue revolves around the need for companies to balance healthy choices and its marketing campaigns.

Internal Domain

In addition to ethical decisions that affect constituents outside of an organization, organizations also deal with internal ethical issues.  Fairness in management, pay, and employee participation are ethical issues. If we work in management at some point in our careers, this is certainly an area we will have extensive control over. Creation of policies that relate to the treatment of employees relates to human relations—and retention of those employees through fair treatment. It is in the organization’s best interests to create policies around internal policies that benefit the company, as well as the individuals working for them.

Internal ethics also include individual/personal decision. How we treat others within the organization (e.g., gossiping, taking credit for another’s work) are examples of this type of ethics. As an employee of an organization, we may not have as much control over external ethical decisions (e.g., global, stakeholder issues), but certainly have control over our personal ethical behaviors. Doing the right thing affects us in that if we are shown to be trustworthy when making ethical decisions, it is more likely we can be promoted, or at the very least, earn respect from our colleagues.


  1. Brown, M. (2010). Ethics in organizations. Santa Clara University, accessed June 2, 2012.
  2. Sims, R.R. "The institutionalization of organizational ethics". J Bus Ethics 10, 493–506 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00383348
  3. United Press International. (2012, February 24). BP trial will push gross negligence claim, accessed February 24, 2012.
  4. Jacobson, M. (2010, June 22). McDonald’s lawsuit: Using toys to sell Happy Meals, accessed February 24, 2012.

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Organizational Communication by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.