Chapter 4: Ethical Communication in Organizations

4.3 Typology of Unethical Communication


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Redding’s Typology of Unethical Organizational Communication

As part of Redding’s (1996) call for the field of organizational communication to “wake up” and start studying ethics, he created a basic typology of unethical organizational communication. The resulting typology of unethical organizational communication consisted of six general categories: coercive, destructive, deceptive, intrusive, secretive, and manipulative-exploitative.

  1. Coercive Communication: The first category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is coercive acts. He defined coercive acts as:

communication events or behavior reflecting abuses of power or authority resulting in (or designed to effect) unjustified invasions of autonomy. This includes: intolerance of dissent, restrictions of freedom of speech; refusal to listen; resorting to formal rules and regulations to stifle discussion or to squash complaints, and so on. (pp. 27–28)

  1. Destructive Communication: The second category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is destructive acts. He defined destructive acts as:

communication events or behavior attack receivers’ self-esteem, reputation, or deeply held feelings; reflecting indifference toward, or content for, basic values of others. This includes: insults, derogatory innuendoes, epithets, jokes (especially those based on gender, race, sex, religion, or ethnicity); put-downs; back-stabbing; character-assassination; and so on. It also includes the use of “truth” as a weapon (as in revealing confidential information to unauthorized persons, or in using alleged “openness” as a façade to conceal the launching of personal attacks. (pp. 28–29)

When looking at Redding’s explanation of destructive communicative acts, there are clearly two parts: aggressive communication and use of information. The first part of his definition focuses on how individuals can use aggressive forms of communication in an attempt to make others feel inferior. These types of communicative acts are commonly referred to as verbally aggressive acts. The second aspect of destructive communication is about how people use information within an organization. Information is commonly seen as a commodity in many organizations, so the hoarding of information as well as using information in manipulative manners is quite common.

  1. Deceptive Communication: The third category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is deceptive acts. He defined deceptive acts as:

communication events or behavior reflecting a “willful perversion of the truth in order to deceive, cheat, or defraud” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1998, s.v. “dishonesty”). This includes: evasive or deliberately misleading messages, which in turn includes equivocation (i.e., the deliberate use of ambiguity) …; also bureaucratic-style euphemisms designed to cover up defects, to conceal embarrassing deeds, or to “prettify” unpleasant facts. (p. 30).

In this category of unethical behavior, we have non-truthful and misleading messages. The first part of this definition examines how some individuals lie in order to get what they want at work. The second part of the definition examines how some individuals or organizations use messages in order to alter a receiver’s perception of reality. The messages, in this case, are not explicitly not-true, but are manipulated in a fashion to alter how receivers interpret those messages.


  1. Intrusive Communication: The fourth category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is intrusive acts. He defined intrusive acts as:

communication behavior that is characteristically initiated by message receivers. For example,…the use of hidden cameras, the tapping of telephones, and the application of computer technologies to the monitoring of employee behavior; in other words, surveillance. The fundamental issue, of course, revolves around the meaning and legitimacy of “privacy rights.” (p. 31)

The issue of intrusion has become important in the 21st Century because modern technology has made intrusion into individuals’ private lives very easy. Whether potential employers are looking at your private Facebook information prior to interviewing you or employers install software on your computer that monitors every key stroke you make, corporate “big-brother” is definitely watching you. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the American Management Association, 36% of respondents had some amount of monitoring of their computer key-strokes by their organizations and 50% of respondents had some or all of their computer files monitored by their organizations. 76% of respondents noted that their workplace monitored their internet activity. In fact, 26% of the respondents indicated that their organizations had fired workers for misusing the internet and another 25% had terminated employees for e-mail misuse. Corporate intrusion does not stop with computer activity. 3% of the respondents said that all of the employees in their organization have their telephone calls recorded while 19% said that only selected job categories had their telephone calls recorded. Some companies go so far as to track their employee’s physical whereabouts via global positioning systems and satellite technology in company vehicles (8%), company cell phones (5%), and employee identification cards (8%). We should mention that there are court cases within the United States that have legalized all of these processes without requiring a forewarning to employees. In the European Union, however, employees must be notified prior to monitoring, but organizations can still legally monitor their employees.

Organizations can also spy on one another. Professional sports teams have been accused of illegally filming opponents and relaying plays obtained without permission, in an attempt to advance their team.

  1. Secretive Communication: The fifth category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is secretive acts. He defined secretive acts as:

various forms of nonverbal communication, especially (of course) silence and including unresponsiveness. It includes such behaviors as hoarding information (I call this “culpable silence”) and sweeping under the rug information that, if revealed, would expose wrongdoing or ineptness on the part of individuals in positions of power. (p. 32)

According to Redding,  even nonverbal unresponsiveness can be a form of unethical communication. For example, if the sender of the message purposefully manipulates her or his nonverbal behavior in an attempt to skew how a receiver interprets a message, then the sender of the message is preventing the receiver from completely and accurately interpreting the message. Furthermore, Redding believes that many employees engage in culpable silence, which occurs when someone purposefully prevents information from being given to receivers who need the information. While culpable silence is not lying in the strictest of senses, culpable silence is clearly a version of deception.

  1. ManipulativeExploitative: The final category of unethical organizational communication discussed by Redding (1996) is manipulative-exploitative acts. He defined manipulative-exploitative acts as those where the source purposefully prevents the receiver from knowing the source’s actual intentions behind a communicative message. A term that Redding finds closely related to these unethical acts is demagoguery:

Of central importance is the notion that a demagogue is one who, without concern for the best interests of the audience, seeks to gain compliance by exploiting people’s fears, prejudices, or areas of ignorance. Closely related to, if not a variant of, demagoguery is the utterance of messages that reflect a patronizing or condescending attitude toward the audience—an unstated assumption that audience members are dull-witted, or immature, or both. (pp. 33–34)

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