1.3 Ethics in Technical Communication

Figure 1.3

Ethics is one of the most important topics in technical communication. When you can communicate clearly and effectively, and when it is your task to help others to understand an object, a process, or a procedure, it is your responsibility to do so in an ethical fashion.

Ethics refers to the choices we make that affect others for good or ill. Ethics can also be defined as a set of agreed upon rules (sometimes explicit but often implied) put forth by a company or organization.

As technical communicators, we’re sometimes forced to make difficult ethical choices—from something as seemingly innocuous as “borrowing” another writer’s or researcher’s language or findings and not giving them proper credit (we call that plagiarism), to leaving out crucial findings in a study that shows the harmful effects a household cleaning product can have on small children. And while we’d like to think that we would make the right decision when faced with an ethical dilemma, it isn’t always that simple.

At some point we may be asked to write or communicate something that isn’t exactly or completely true, or we may be asked to not say something that we know is true. What do we do in those situations? Should I write what my supervisor wants me to write even though I know it’s wrong? What if someone gets hurt because of something we’ve done or not done, and where do I draw the line?

Ultimately, we must think about our audience and ask whether we are truly acting in their best interest. Also, ask yourself if you’re willing to take responsibility, both publicly and privately, for what you have written or said? Will you stand behind your message?

As technical communicators, we should always strive to:

      • Not falsify data or state as truth something we know to be false
      • Not deliberately misrepresent facts or information
      • Distinguish between fact and opinion (this is especially important in today’s world)
      • Not assume that what an “expert” has said is the truth (experts can make mistakes too—and some even lie!)
      • Avoid language that attempts to evade responsibility (using passive voice, for example: “Mistakes were made.”)
      • Avoid using language that misleads readers (avoid abstract wording, euphemisms, or jargon, such as legal, technical, and/or bureaucratic)
      • Use layout/design/visuals to help readers better understand the message (rather than to mislead, deceive, or distract readers)
      • Not violate anyone’s rights
      • Act in our audience’s best interest.

As with any ethical issue or moral dilemma, there is usually a variety of opinions based upon people’s politics, personalities, and purposes. From a rhetorical perspective, as with any other technical document, keeping your communications ethical can be achieved by assessing your purpose and considering your audience, language, evidence, and structure (see P.A.L.E.S).

Ethics for Technical Writers

It is useful to think of ethics as the “appropriate” methods for actions and relating to others in a given environment. As a technical communicator, you will create many documents throughout your professional career. Some may be simple and straightforward, while others may be difficult and involve questionable objectives. Overall, there are a few basic tenets to adhere to whenever you are writing a professional document:

      • DON’T MISLEAD: Do not write something that could cause the reader to believe something that isn’t true. This can be done by lying, misrepresenting facts, or manipulating numbers to favor your opinion and objectives. 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 as such. Be cautious when using figures, charts and tables, making sure they are not misleading. While this may seem obvious, when the pressure is on and there are deadlines to meet, taking shortcuts and stretching the truth are all-too common.

Plagiarism is a form of misleading readers. Plagiarizing is misrepresenting the source or facts, most commonly when you claim the ideas you are writing about are yours. When you are writing and performing research, make sure you are citing the sources of your information and giving credit to all the necessary researchers. At no time is it acceptable to rearrange information in order to attempt to indicate that the writer is the source of someone else’s idea or to indicate that the writer read a report that included information he/she cited, when the primary source of the information was cited in another report.  All sources must be referenced accurately in the text and cited on a reference page.This rule also extends beyond writing to what is referred to as intellectual property. Intellectual property includes the following:

          • Patents – Items whose credit for creation is protected
          • Trademarks – Company names (WalMart), logos (the McDonald’s M), or slogans (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands”)
          • Copyright law – Items whose distribution is protected by law (books, movies, or software)

None of the above items can be used without proper recognition of or approval from the appropriate company or individual involved.

      • DON’T MANIPULATE: If you are a professional communicator, it is understood that you have at least a decent ability to write persuasively, even if your first persuasive document was your resume. You have an ethical obligation to not use your ability to persuade people to do what is not in their best interest. It is unethical to persuade readers to make a decision that benefits yourself or your company 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 may lie behind their concerns. Discussing several opinions and ideas on a given subject will make you appear more persuasive (and more credible!) and prevent you from appearing biased.
      • 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 made any assumptions or included anything that may be discriminatory.
        For more information, check out the article from the Purdue OWL on “
        Stereotypes and Biased Languages.”
        For more information on avoiding stereotypes and using gender-inclusive language, see the Tech Whirl article “Gender-neutral Technical Writing.”

As you put together professional documents and begin writing in the workplace, it is important to understand your ethical responsibilities as a technical communicator. Technical writers have a responsibility to their readers and their employers to follow ethics when writing reports. Technical writers must use words that demonstrate valid appeals to reason and avoid emotional words and phrases that appeal to basic emotion instead of justifiable reasoning. In addition, technical writers must use valid references to support ideas and strategies. Technical writers must also use accurate numbers to report data, avoiding charts and tables that skew data. Using any type of fallacies in technical writing is unethical and could result in dire consequences (see the “Space Shuttle Challenger“and the “Behind the Lion Air Crash” articles as examples).


Ethics of Language

Sometimes the very words and phrasing technical communicators choose can result in unethical practices. Consider the following sentence:

The prosecutor argued that the defendant, who was at the scene of the crime, who had a strong revenge motive, and who had access to the murder weapon, was guilty of homicide. 

How might this sentence be considered unethical? If we look at it carefully, we see that the main point (or main clause) is simply: The prosecutor argued that the defendant… was guilty of homicide. Rather than starting the paragraph with that sentence, note how the writer has chosen instead to break it up by using a list of parenthetical points about the defendant (he was at the scene of the crime, he had a strong revenge motive, and he had access to the murder weapon), which in this case works to subordinate (or de-emphasize) the main point. By the time the reader reaches the sentence’s point, which is only that the prosecutor argued that the defendant was guilty of homicide, they have likely formed an impression of the defendant’s assumed guilt.

We can make this sentence more ethically responsible by simply putting the main clause up front and then following it with the three supporting points:

The prosecutor argued that the defendant was guilty of homicide. According to the prosecutor, the defendant was at the scene of the crime, had a strong revenge motive, and had access to the murder weapon.

Even though it essentially says the same thing, the arrangement of information in this example creates a more ethical approach to the sentence: it allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the defendant’s alleged guilt. It also follows a logical and recognizable structure of stating the main point first and then following it with reasons, examples, and/or other forms of evidence.

*To see an example of this lesson in the classroom, watch Will Fleming’s video on ethics:


*While this is just a brief introduction to the much wider and more complex field of ethics, as a technical communicator you should remember that what we write and say affects others; therefore, we have a responsibility to our audience, to ourselves, and to the companies and organizations we represent to be honest, fair and ethical.


Watch the following video, “Appropriate Language in Technical Writing” from Tamara Powell, who explains, among other things, how language becomes an ethical concern if it is imprecise or disrespectful:


Additional Resources


"Ethics and Technical Communication." Lumen Technical Writing. [License: CC BY-SA 4.0]
"Ethics in Technical Communication." Open Technical Communication. [License: CC BY 4.0]
Powell, Tamara. "Appropriate Language in Technical Writing." Video. YouTube.com.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

1.3 Ethics in Technical Communication Copyright © 2020 by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.