Due to technical nature of technical communication (I know, big surprise!) we, as professionals, must address ethics and how they’re related to technology. Clearly, ethical concerns arise in any field of work, but they relate to technical communication differently than other areas.
I think many of us who currently work for any (type of) company that requires the use of computers, the internet, and/or email, have had to sign an “acceptable use,” “internet use,” or “email use” agreement. (If not, stay tuned. I’m sure one will be coming to you soon enough.) Acceptable use policies are becoming more common, as employers are limiting what employees can and cannot access at work and protecting themselves in case of the possible reprimand of an employee. The reason employers have to limit the use of the internet is that the internet is everywhere. Compare surfing the internet to watching a TV show. What do these activities have in common? Both are entertaining activities that you can partake in at home. What’s different? You can surf the internet at work, but you cannot watch TV at work (unless it’s part of your job, obviously. However, I don’t think most of use sit around with a TV readily available at work). Engaging in internet use is something people can do anywhere and, as a result, companies have created policies so their employees know the expectations of acceptable use of computers and the internet. Although Katz and Rhodes seem to abandon the idea of limiting employees’ use of the internet and email, I think this is a fair ethical standard as long as the policy is consistent, clearly stated, and frequently mentioned. I work as a teacher for a large school district and the acceptable use policy in my school district is stricter than strict, but the Human Resources department does a good job of communicating expectations to employees. My school has signs posted in every area used predominantly by teachers informing us that they are monitoring us via email, internet, and video surveillance. Furthermore, the Director of Human Resources sends out periodic emails informing employees that they will subject to investigation for inappropriate email and internet use. I know of teachers who would probably engage in inappropriate technology use if they weren’t so fearful of being investigated. However, the Director has definitely scared most of us enough to leave our personal business at home.
Katz and Rhodes discuss the idea that many companies expect employees to use email for “neutral” purposes, or messages that do not contain any incriminating information. Is it possible to separate an employee’s necessary work from the internet? What if employers only allowed employees to communicate with coworkers in a “neutral” way when talking f2f, too? I don’t think limiting the way employees interact with one another through email is a fair ethical standard in the workplace. As a teacher, I am explicitly told not to communicate with the parents of students in any that they would consider questionable. If I need to contact a parent about grades or behavior, the administrators at my school encourage teachers to contact the parent by telephone because, unless the parent records the conversation, it cannot be used against the teacher later. Due to the number of schools and teachers getting sued, this is what email communication as a teacher has boiled down to. I think society has taken a turn for the worst in this regard. I don’t think teachers should be fearful of backlash based on their communication via the internet, especially when the communication is work-related (about their child). Sadly, I have to edit myself when emailing parents and usually just step away from my computer and pick up the phone. I don’t mind calling parents, but I think I should be able to email them if I want to. In my opinion, I should not have to worry about the details of an email message when communicating with my students’ parents, but with lawsuits and teacher investigations, that is what teachers of today must consider.
In technical communication, and in every area of work that uses email, the internet, and computers, we must consider ethical issues. In the future, I would like to see the standards change. I think that some limitations on computer, internet, and email use is acceptable to some degree, but I think trust in a competent employee can be much more powerful than constantly monitoring every aspect of an employee’s work life.