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Chapter 3: Ethical and Legal Obligations

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    Bay College

    Learning Objectives

    Ethics and Technical Communication [7]

    As you put together professional documents and begin working in the “real” world, you must understand what could easily lead to your downfall in your professional workplace. The Paul Anderson text claims that at work in a professional setting, there are at least three major “sources of guidance”:

    1. The code of ethics already developed by your field’s professionals.
    2. The ethical code set in place by your company.
    3. Your own personal ethics.

    Some companies have decided to have employees keep their personal ethics at home. In reality, companies that try to keep personal ethics at home find that employees are occasionally asked to perform actions that they do not condone at home. In professional settings we would like to assume that companies would not act unethically, so why should we even pay attention?

    The truth is, companies do act unethically whether it is disposing of toxic waste incorrectly or price gouging to name a few. The same goes for writing professional documents. You should keep them clean and standardized to save yourself from damaging a possible job opportunity and the name you represent.


    When writing any professional document, it is important to identify the potential stakeholders. A stakeholder is anyone who will be affected by what you are intending on writing. How you choose to word your document or even the choice to write the document becomes an ethical matter to stakeholders. It is crucial to consider your main objective(s) before writing. If you are writing a document that would be used to harm other living things (like writing a manual for a handgun) you have to weigh the implications to all stakeholders impacted. According to the Paul Anderson text, there are three types of stakeholders: direct, indirect, and remote. [8]


    The direct stakeholders are those initially impacted by what you write. For instance, if you are writing about opening a new waste disposal area, the stakeholders clearly include the company you are writing to. However, disposal companies that might use this waste area in the future are also considered direct stakeholders. Their future business will be impacted based on whether your proposal is accepted or declined.


    The indirect stakeholders are those that are not impacted until a later time. Using the previous example of the waste disposal, citizens in the area would be indirect stakeholders. The stakeholders don’t necessarily need to be people. The nearby eco-systems would be indirect stakeholders to this same proposal. If toxic waste is dumped there, it would harm the animals, rivers and plant life nearby.


    Finally, the remote stakeholders are not affected until far into the future. One example following our hypothetical waste disposal area, is future generations. While it may seem far-fetched, historically, there have been instances where toxic or poisonous things have been disposed of incorrectly and the run-off that went into lakes and streams caused birth defects. While this is remote, it must be considered when writing a document.

    Key Takeaways

    Ethical Writing

    Once on the job, you will be assigned to create many documents throughout your professional career. Some may be simple and straightforward, some may be difficult and involve questionable objectives. Overall, there are a few basic points to adhere to whenever you are writing a professional document: [9]

    • Don’t mislead.
    • Don’t manipulate.
    • Don’t stereotype.

    Don’t Mislead

    This has more than one meaning to the professional writer. The main point is clear. When writing persuasively, do not write something that can cause the reader to believe something that isn’t true. This can be done by lying, misrepresenting facts, or just “twisting” numbers to favor your opinion and objectives. This is clearly different from the resume ethics. Once you are on the job, you cannot leave out numbers that show you’re behind or over-budget on a project, no matter how well it may work once it is completed. Facts are facts and they must be represented in that way. Be cautious when using figures, charts and tables, making sure they are not misleading. While this may seem easy to read about, when the pressure is on and there are deadlines to meet, taking shortcuts and stretching the truth are very common.

    The other, less frequently used component is plagiarizing. While it may seem like this is something students learn to avoid after they graduate, it remains an important guideline for all professionals. Plagiarizing is misrepresenting the source or facts, most commonly when you claim the ideas you are writing about are yours. When you are researching professional documents, make sure you are using material with permission. If you are writing about what you’ve researched, make sure you are citing the sources of your information and giving credit to all the necessary researchers.

    This rule also extends beyond writing to what is referred to as intellectual property. Intellectual property includes the following:

    Patents and trademarks are company names (WalMart), logos (the Target bullseye), processes or slogans (I’m lovin’ it)
    that belong to a person or company. None of these things can be used without proper recognition of or approval from the appropriate company or individual involved.

    A company uses a to show something is trademarked or an ® for something registered with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. An example would be Nike and their famous swoosh symbol.

    This law extends beyond the major companies. Any written document in your own company is copyrighted by law once produced. That means if you are borrowing a good idea from a friend at another company, you must cite them as a source. Also, although not required by law, it is a good idea to cite sources from inside your own company as well. You wouldn’t want someone else taking credit for your ideas. Why should you treat others any differently?

    The legal consequences are most notable when one considers writing in the professional world. While plagiarizing may give you a failing grade in a class, plagiarizing in the workplace can not only get you fired, but could result in a costly lawsuit or possibly even jail time. It is not only ethical to follow these rules, it is an enforced law. Make sure you properly document all sources so as not to mislead a reader.

    Spend a few minutes viewing the following website for clarification on copyright, trademark, and registered trademark: Differences Between a Copyright, Trademark, & Registration.

    Copyright law includes items whose distribution is protected by law (books, movies, or software). The copyright symbol is shown with a ©. Copyright is different from plagiarism in that it is a legal issue. Only the copyright holder, the person/organization who owns the protected item, can copy it.

    Some considerations made by the court when determining if a copyright law has been violated include:

    • The character, purpose of use, and amount of information being used. Was it a phrase, sentence, chapter, or an entire piece of work? Was the information simply copied and pasted as a whole or changed? Was it taken from something published or unpublished? What was it used for?
    • If the person using another’s material did so to profit from it. Only the copyright holder should profit from the material he/she owns. For example, this is why a faculty member cannot use his or her personal cd for a movie screening on campus and charge students to attend the viewing.
    • If using someone else’s property affected the market for the copyrighted work. For example, if I take an item that would cost money to buy and copy it for other people, I am affecting the market for that product since the people I give it to will now not have to purchase it themselves.Therefore, the original owner of the material is denied a profit due to my actions.

    When dealing with copyright questions, consider the following tips. First, find out if the item can be used. Sometimes, the copyright holder allows it if credit if given. Second, don’t use large amounts of another person’s information. Third, if possible, ask permission to use another person’s work. In addition, and most importantly, cite sources accurately so as to give credit to the another person’s ideas if you are able to use them.

    Don’t Manipulate

    If you are holding a professional job, it is understood that you have a decent ability to write persuasively, even if your first persuasive document was your resume. Do not use your ability to persuade people to do what is not in their best interest. While this may not always seem easy, a good writer with a bad motive can twist words to make something sound like it is beneficial to all parties. The audience may find out too late that what you wrote only benefited you and actual ended up hurting them. This goes back to the stakeholders. Make sure they are not only considered and cared for when writing a persuasive document. It is easy to get caught up in the facts and forget all the people involved. Their feelings and livelihood must be considered with every appropriate document you create.

    Don’t Stereotype

    Most stereotyping takes place subconsciously now since workplaces are careful to not openly discriminate. It is something we may not even be aware we are doing, so it is always a good idea to have a peer or coworker proofread your documents to make sure you have not included anything that may point to discriminatory assumptions.

    Addressing Unethical Practices

    Many times in the professional setting, workers find it difficult to deal with unethical practices in their company. First, begin by bringing the unethical practice to the surface, which is usually the hardest part. Paul Anderson’s text reviews
    three ways that you can bring your company’s practices to the surface. It is easiest to first start asking questions. Asking questions may seem too simple but it is an effective way of bringing attention to your company’s problems. Ask questions about who their decisions are affecting and why they are making those decisions. This will not put you on the spot for being the bad guy, but it will allow you to voice your opinion.

    The second idea Anderson describes as being helpful in revealing unethical practices is to use facts or reason, instead of accusation. Before you raise questions about your company’s unethical practices, make sure you have cold hard facts instead of accusations. Many times accusations are made about situations where people truly do not know the reason those decisions were being made. If you base your thoughts around true facts, your company will assume you looked into the situation and will take your thoughts more seriously.

    The third helpful way to bring your company’s unethical practices to the surface is to remain open to others ideas. What this allows you to do is base a solution around many different sides instead of just your own. Since people usually have different ethical values, your own stance may not coincide with everyone else’s’. Make sure you identify possible values of others when considering possible solutions.

    Employing Ethical Techniques

    In professional writing, ethical dimensions begin to surface especially in persuasive writing. When you are trying to persuade other people to make a certain decision or to take action, stay clear of manipulation and misconceptions. At times, you may be misleading someone unintentionally. In persuasive writing, you must respect the reader’s values and viewpoints. Do not use false or skewed facts or argue from such premises because you may deceive the reader(s) and cause them to make an unlawful decision.

    Avoiding manipulation when writing persuasively is also key. Sometimes you may be aware of the readers point. If so, you must make sure not to use this personal information against them in your writing. It is unethical to persuade readers to make a decision that benefits yourself and not them. Most times, people try to manipulate others to receive some type of reward or gain.

    To avoid using misleading or manipulating words and phrases, it is important to be open to alternative viewpoints. In preparing any type of persuasive writing, you will come across conflicting viewpoints, so being aware of other views should not be hard. Keep your readers’ ideas and goals in mind and consider what lies behind their concerns. To help solve these problems it may also be good to make statements based on human values. Discussing several opinions and ideas on the subject will make you more persuasive, because most viewpoints will be included to prevent you from appearing biased.

    Legal Issues and Communication

    This section presents information about legal aspects of communication which will help ensure that your writing is free of legal concerns. Click on the blue link that starts this section..

    Appreciating Different Cultures

    This section discusses the importance of considering diversity when writing because our world is multicultural, and your writing needs to reflect our world in that regard. Click on the blue link that starts this section.

    Key Takeaways

    Ethics Decision Checklist

    • What is the nature of the ethical dilemma?
    • What are the specific aspects of this dilemma that make you uncomfortable?
    • What are your competing obligations in this dilemma?
    • What advice does a trusted supervisor or mentor offer?
    • Does your company’s code of conduct address this issue?
    • Does your professional association’s code of conduct address this issue?
    • What are you unwilling to do? What are you willing to do?
    • How will you explain or justify your decision?

    Legal Issues and Communication [10]

    Buildings with Reflections in Water

    In business, image is everything. Public opinion of a company affects a consumer’s views on that company’s products. This, in turn, affects the company’s public profit, and essentially its standing. When a company is involved in a lawsuit or a recall, the company has to consider the consequences that these issues will have on their business and needs to consider the costs of repairing the company’s reputation. These are among the reasons certain documents are carefully reviewed before being sent to their intended readers. To write ethically, you must also identify another group of people: the individuals who will gain or lose because of your message. Collectively, these people are called stakeholders because they have a stake in what you are writing. Only by learning who these stakeholders are can you assure that you are treating them in accordance with your own ethical values. When crafting your communication think about who will be affected by what you say and how you say it. You have to be sensitive to the following language in a professional document:

    • Race and gender roles
    • Political correctness
    • Generalizations
    • Cultural awareness
    • Religious symbols

    Legal Notice

    Under the law, most documents written by employees represent the position and commitments of the organization itself. There are always legal issues to consider when writing a professional document and they reflect in writing style. Professional documents can serve as evidence in disputes over contracts and in product liability lawsuits. A lawsuit is a civil action brought in court. Today, the average company is involved in 400 lawsuits at any given time. While most companies win their lawsuits, being caught in a lawsuit has many consequences. Lawsuits cost companies time and money. The money spent on lawyers and the time spent in court takes away resources a company could use for improving business and products. Lawsuits also have ramifications for a company’s reputation. Recalls can be another legal problem for companies. A recall is when a product is removed from the market or a correction is made to the product because it is either defective or potentially harmful. In most cases, a recall results from an unintentional mistake by a company rather than from an intentional disregard for the law. Sometimes a company discovers a problem and recalls a product on its own. Other times a company recalls the product after concerns are made.

    There are a number of reasons why a company may face a lawsuit or a recall. One of the main reasons a company gets involved in a lawsuit is because the directions to the company’s product were not clear to the consumer. For this reason, the general guideline is that instructions should be understandable, clear and concise at the fourth to sixth grade reading level. Also, when in a lawsuit, a company has to remember that all documents may be subpoenaed. This means that any document from memos and emails to proposals and studies can be subject to revision by a court of law. Another reason a company gets into a lawsuit may be over a recall. An aspect of recalls are those dealing with safety concerns. Many products are recalled for potential safety concerns, even if no one was actually hurt. To avoid safety recalls, companies need to make sure they consider every possible danger involved with a product. Some dangers may seem to be common knowledge, but companies should be aware of those and label the product accordingly, regardless of assumptions about common knowledge.

    Communication Constraints

    Constraints are limits for documents set by the company or industry.As you gather the information that will form the basis for the way you craft your communication, you should also learn about any expectations, regulations, or other factors that may constrain what you can say and how you can say it. In the working world, expectations and regulations can affect any aspect of a communication. Aspects that affect communication are as follows:[13]

    • Tone of voice
    • Use of abbreviations
    • Tables
    • Margins
    • Length of document (as a maximum)

    Person Signing Document

    It is important to find out about these constraints and take them into account as you create your communication. Some of these constraints come directly from the employer. Your employer and your readers probably have expectations about the way you write a professional document. There are often, unspoken expectations about how the required elements will be prepared. You are cultivating a company’s desire for a particular corporate image, to protect its legal interests, and to preserve its competitive edge. A toy company like LEGO, would not want to be associated with a technical document that includes slang or words that could damage their reputation. They are legally protecting their business. Since all documents can be used against individuals and companies in court, all written documents with the company name should include only professional content that properly represents the company.

    Other times, constraints are set by government regulations that determine how certain reports need to be written. Regulations are laws made by the government that affect what is in a document or how a document is written. Writing constraints can originate from outside the company. For example, from government regulations that specify how patent applications, environmental impact report, and many other types of documents are to be prepared. Similarly, scientific, technical, or other professional journals have strict rules about many aspects of the articles they publish. These regulations act as standards for crafting your communication effectively.

    Style Constraints

    Constraints may be set by style issues as well. There should be no clichés and idioms in documents because they may pose a problem with translating documents from one language to another. A cliché is a worn-out or overused expression that tends to sound trite and often doesn’t express what you truly mean to say. Examples include: the bottom line is, head over heels, or take it or leave it. Idioms are words or expressions that are specialized vocabulary used by a group of people also known as jargon. Look at the phrases that you use when you write and see if they make sense when translated literally. If they don’t, replace them with language that is clear and direct, and will not be misunderstood. Don’t use “compound” sentences (and, or, nor, but, however, yet).Opinions and jokes should also be avoided in business documents. Communicate, argue or persuade your readers through facts and data instead of opinions.

    Many companies also like to form a “custom” way of writing. Companies like Microsoft want all their documents to be written in the same style and format. The only way to do this is to teach the writers the “correct” way to write in order to portray Microsoft. What many people may not know is that Microsoft does this to cover themselves in a legal trial. If every single document is written using the same format, they can make sure that the customers understand the entire document and do not run into trouble with inconsistencies.

    How do you know if you are following the correct constraints? The easiest way to understand how to write in your specific field is to look at documents written by your company and other companies in the industry within the past few months. This will allow you to see their style and how they make their argument. Some companies even publish style guides for writing. By seeing your company’s regulations, you can begin to draft your argument. Make sure to follow your company’s guidebook (if they have one) to be sure that your style is correct with their recommendations.

    Remember that in professional writing you are trying to persuade the reader using an ethical style. This means to avoiding content that will not stand up in court, especially since people file lawsuits for everything these days. Make sure that the documents you write for your company are persuasive while also preserving your company’s competitive edge.

    Legal Requirements: Protecting Consumers [14]

    Documentation should prepare readers to safely use the product. US law stipulates that a manual must list any hazards that may occur “from the intended or unintended but reasonably foreseeable use of its products.” You have a legal duty to warn consumers when:

    1. The product supplied is dangerous.
    2. The danger is or should be known by the manufacturer.
    3. The danger is present when the product is used in the usual and expected manner.
    4. The danger is not obvious or well known to the user.

    Failure to “adequately” warn consumers opens your company up to lawsuits. What exactly makes a warning “adequate”? Good question. Adequacy is almost impossible to define. It’s much easier to define what is not adequate. Here’s a few common ways that manuals or instructions fall short:

    • Failure to warn users about how to properly use a product.
    • Failure to warn against risks from proper use of a product.
    • Failure to warn against any reasonably foreseeable misuses of a product.

    The key commonality is that everything listed could result in bodily harm or death.

    Safety information must also be accessible to your readers. Therefore, warnings should stand out from the rest of the documents, possibly with icons, colored fonts, or bolding. They should also be easy to understand. A confusing warning is just as bad as not warning users at all.

    Don't sleep with your hairdryer!

    Many companies list warnings at the beginning of the manual or instructions to give them prominence. That’s fine, but also list hazards where the reader might encounter them in your instructions.

    Of course, it’s tempting to frontload the warnings as a preemptive strike against lawsuits. Lots of companies do it. Every electronic product is dangerous if you stick your tongue in the socket along with the plug. Just be reasonable. We’ve seen warnings that border on the bizarre: “Do not eat your iPod Shuffle”; “Do not use your hairdryer while sleeping”; “Do not use this rotary drill as a home dentistry kit,” etc.

    Before you brainstorm a list of improbable-but-possible warnings, we’ve got a warning of our own: Too many warnings—especially ridiculous ones—make the whole safety section seem silly. Then, no one takes the warnings seriously—not even the real ones. Remember: You only have to caution users when a danger is “reasonably foreseeable.” Aim for the Goldilocks principle: find the middle ground between not enough warnings and way too many.

    There are are often contract and liability laws put into place to protect consumers.

    Contract Law is an agreement between two entities. It can be written or oral. There are usually two kinds: express warranty and implied warranty. An express warranty is a clearly written or oral statement that the product of what a product is capable of. An implied warranty can be reasonably inferred by the purchaser. How so? How the packaging is done and what is on the accompanying fliers or material can be part of this.

    Liability Law helps companies and organizations act responsibly. Therefore, the company or organization is responsible for giving adequate instructions and warning users about the risks associated with the product. They can also be held liable if a consumer is injured or damages occur.

    Liability and contract laws can vary by country. European regulations are decidedly strict, and Asian laws are starting to follow suit. If you plan on selling wares internationally, account for various regional requirements. Learn about liability concerns and relevant international product liabilities before you publish your manual. As always, consult a lawyer for specific information on how to construct warnings.


    [7] Ethics and Technical Communication. Provided by: WikiBooks. Located at: Project: Professional and Technical Writing. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike, edited by Amber Kinonen, edits included in italics

    [8] Image of people in woods. Authored by: 4FRI. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

    [9] Image of Ethics Wall Sign. Authored by: Dan Mason. Located at: License: CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

    [10] Legal Issues and Communication. Provided by: WikiBooks. Located at: Project: Professional and Technical Writing. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

    [11] Image of Buildings. Authored by: Miroslav Petrasko. Located at: License: CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

    [12] Image of Legal Paperwork. Authored by: Canadian Pacific. Located at: License: CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial

    [13] Image of Person Signing Document. Authored by: Juli. Located at: License: CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

    [14] Legal Requirements CC-BY-NC Tech Writing Handbook, edited by Amber Kinonen, edits included in italics

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