Review of Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone

Ethics in Technical Communication: A Deeper Look

Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone

 Review by: Paul Dombrowski, University of Central Florida

We typically think of ethics in technical communication in terms of our relationships with our employer, our clients, and the consumer or user.  Our ATTW Code of Ethics, for example, focuses on our students, the public, the academy, the profession, non-academic employers, and contractors. Of late, however, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the ethical aspects of our relationships within our working environment, whether it be face-to-face or in cyberspace. 

This broadening of attention is, in part, an outcome of the public’s increased attention to ethics in social networking and other cybermedia in a number of notable cases.  For example, in 2003 Ryan Halligan, at age 13, committed suicide after cyberbullying by schoolmates and social networking suggestions by a past friend.  In 2006 Megan Meier, at age 13, also committed suicide following cyberbullying by a persona created by a former neighbor’s adult mother.  In the workplace, the case of Ralph Spinoza v. County of Orange in 2012 resulted in a judgment of $820,000 against Spinoza’s employer for cyberharrassment over his physical deformity.

An excellent instance of this new dimension of ethical concern in the professional world is a recent book, Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior, edited by Robert A. Giacalone and Mark D. Promislo (M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 2013).  It deals with the workplace in broad terms with clear relevance for technical communicators.  Though the collected essays read as a dense compendium of research, the underlying theme is clear and direct: ”the effects on individual well-being when workers and organization behave unethically” (3).  While past works on business ethics have generally taken an organizational and economic perspective focusing on “depressed stock prices, ruined company reputations, and individuals’ finances,” Giacolone and Promislo take a holistic and human-centered perspective (4).  This approach reveals the ripples of disturbance across the entire workplace and includes negative physical, psychological, and emotional effects on the perpetrators, victims, and witnesses to unethical behavior.

Though I expected this book to be speculative and abstract, I found it to be solidly grounded in extensive empirical research from a wide range of sources including psychology, physiology, business management, and public health.  The essays are grouped into sections on Attacking Others: Revenge, Aggression, Bullying, and Abuse; Harmful Behavior and Work Stress; Individual Differences, Justice, and Moral Emotions; and Organizational and Societal Perspectives.  The collective impact of these studies is strikingly insightful and deep, ranging from the immediate, concrete effects (primary trauma) of unethical behavior such as financial collapse (e.g., Enron) or the stress of bullying, to the broader, relational stressors (secondary trauma) of witnessing unethical behavior and even the simple fact of being associated with an organization behaving unethically such as in organizational racial discrimination.  These ripples of effect are like tsunami waves, wreaking very real consequences at a considerable distance from the point of origin.

Before reading this book, it was as though I have been examining workplace ethics with a blunt instrument rather than with the finesse of a skilled surgeon.  Beyond the realm of obvious unethical behaviors such as misleading clients or endangering the public through deceptive technical communication lies the realm of less obvious but no less real behaviors such as mobbing at work, ostracism, abusive supervision, and workgroup incivility.  The effects of such behaviors are similarly wide-ranging, from physiological effects such as heightened blood pressure and risk of coronary heart disease to marital and family disruptions and diminished self-esteem.  There are even broader impacts such as “the vicarious traumatisation of counsellors” (sic) to primary and secondary victims and societal impacts such as public corruption (19).  The recognition and comprehension of these behaviors and impacts is encompassed by the “ethical impact theory” for which the editors are professionally highly regarded.

Thankfully, the essays extend beyond the recognition and comprehension of unethical behaviors. Many include sections on various coping mechanisms to protect, restore, or minimize negative impacts to personal well-being. Among these is “forgoing the sweetness of revenge for the healthy choice of forgiveness” as both an individual practice and a managerial approach to foster, because revenge is in itself damaging to well-being and self-esteem (44). Other sections explain ways to “manage machiavellianism” (183) and how to cultivate empathy, “a compassionate workplace” (253), and a healthy “ethical climate” (271).  The concluding pieces deal with constructive and pre-emptive approaches to shaping the workplace such as “the virtuous business cycle model” and “macro-ethinomics” (287, 299).  I recommend this book as food for thought and as a basis for cultivating well-being in the workplace.