Ethics and Privacy

Both privacy and ethics are important considerations for anyone using technology as a communication tool. Indeed, these concepts apply to the general public, as well as to specific groups such as technical communicators. Perhaps the demographic of people who are especially impacted by privacy and ethics  are those who are relatively new to technology. That is, people who are new to the internet (i.e., an inmate realesed after 20 years) may not always realize how much information they are giving out when using the internet, and how easily that information may be used negatively against them. For example, while all the credit card companies, banks etc., claim their online security is fail safe, hackers consistently prove otherwise. Those same individuals who are not aware of online risks involving identity theft and other scams may also not realize that the record of their email messages exist in cyberspace forever. Thus, they may not realize that what they write needs to be ethical—especially when the email generates from a workplace account.

 Chapter 9 in Digital Ligeracy For Technical Communicators by Steven Katz and Vicki Rhodes and the article, Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online by Paine and Joinson shed light on these topics. While Chapter 9 was fairly dense with academic, philosophical, and ethical jargon, the notion that technology creates new ethical considerations for communicators is an important concern that should be taught to new employees that are expected to participate in technological communication mediums. One of my first real-world experiences with ethics and technology took place a few years ago when I was involved with a professional class in an industrial setting.

This class was designed to teach employees about email etiquette and was the result of inappropriate email use on company time. Several employees were essentially carrying on personal conversations about weekend activities and so on that was inappropriate for this work setting. In addition, these employees did not understand the blind copy function of their email system, and were thus, at times, accidentally emailing information to clients that also were inappropriate.

 This problem was two-fold: 1) the employees failed to consider their workplace ethics of being professional at all times, and 2) these employees did not understand the implications of email as a communication medium. Whereas these employees could have probably talked amongst themselves face-to-face about these topics during lunch or breaks, it was not appropriate to use the organization’s email for such conversation, which they did not understand. This problem may have been avoided, had this company made clear their expectations of workplace email use. Moreover, companies may benefit from addressing their ethical expectations—if these expectations are not promoted and taught to employees, than the ethics will be nothing but a basis for discipline after a rule is broken, rather than a means to prevent issues from arising in the first place.

Posted on November 18, 2012, in Society, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. In the school district where I work, we’ve never been given a class or inservice on email ethics or etiquette, but we’ve been given a warning: our emails are a matter of public record and can be searched and shared with the public at any time. That seems to have taken care of nearly all the inappropriate behavior. It hasn’t, though, taken care of etiquette as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps I have a definition of etiquette that’s too broad, but I feel that if an email doesn’t show an attempt to consider the needs of the audience, it’s an issue of etiquette–and poor communication. One person here at school consistently sends emails that are so terse that they convey an irritated or gruff tone. Additionally the responses are too short to completely respond to issues, requiring follow-up emails. It really doesn’t have to be that hard to use email professionally and effectively, does it?

    • I think that in some cases the email tone changes depending on the type of device people are using. I can get all my email on a computer, tablet, or phone, and if I use the computer I usually write more and provide a full response, but if I use a phone or tablet I write only until my thumb cramps up.

      • That is such a good aspect you point out there. Don’t we also tend to almost write our emails in text messaging style when we send an email via phone or tablet?

        • Excellent point here. I used to use the WordPress app to comment on blog posts, but now feel I really need to be on my laptop to provide a full response and easily search for resources I can link you too. Of course I can do these things on my iPad too, but I can’t type as fast nor can I have multiple apps open at the same time.

  2. I think that things have evolved quite a bit over the last few years. Email has become the formal medium for most business communication, while instant messaging has become the casual banter channel. I rarely if ever see someone lose it on email anymore.

    Also, it isn’t just inmates and shut-ins that need help adjusting to online privacy. I can think of at least one former CIA director that could use a lesson or two.

  3. I think you make a good point in saying that companies should address their ethical expectations right from the get-go. In my eyes, uncertainties are just the right breeding ground for unethical behaviors.

  4. It really shouldn’t be that hard to send a professional email. But some individuals have never had to do so prior to being hired into a position that requires such communication. I have received many emails that portray a tone that is not perhaps intended, because the writer didn’t consider the audience. Statements carry a different meaning when spoken than when written, and inexperienced writers may not always realize this.

  5. “This problem may have been avoided, had this company made clear their expectations of workplace email use.”

    I think you bring up a great point here. What one employer considers “abuse” or unethical may be completely acceptable at another. It has a lot to do with workplace culture. While employees can do their best to consider the ethicality of their use of email, ultimately, employers need to make their expectations clear.

  6. If you notice, in our syllabus I have a section about emails:

    Student Conduct
    • Online communications with your instructor and your peers on class assignments should be edited carefully for tone as well as for grammar, style, and spelling.
    • Always put your name at the end of an email. Always.
    • Always include our course number (ENG 745) in the subject line of your email.
    • Always write at least a sentence long remark or question in your email. Do not send blank emails with a file attached and expect me to know what to do with it.
    • Answer emails from your instructor and classmates within 48 hours.

    This appears in all of my Syllabi, but it’s rare that students follow it, especially the subject line part. With you all being a class only of 8, I know your names so it doesn’t matter much, but with the freshman, it’s difficult to keep track when so many of them don’t sign their name or even write a complete sentence. I tend to rely on face-to-face meetings to ask for clarification rather than start an email chain that goes nowhere, but that’s not an option for online students…

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