Matthew W. Seeger
Questions of right-wrong, good-bad, and ethical-unethical are endemic to any purposeful human activity that affects others (Johannesen, 2002). Organizations, by virtue of their size, power, and prominence in society profoundly affect the lives and welfare of a wide variety of stakeholders. Organizations are, therefore, moral domains pregnant with ethical significance. Moreover, the ethical questions organizations face are highly equivocal and increasingly characterized by competing values of individuals, organizations, and a wide variety of stakeholders (Seeger, 1997). Communication is the fundamental process whereby organizations sort through this equivocality and reach consensus regarding what constitutes ethical conduct (Seeger, 2001).
Questions concerning the ethics and values of organizational communication have recently become more prominent in both the study and practice of organizational communication. Cultural and interpretive metaphors of organizational communication (Putnam, 1982; Putnam and Fairhurst, 2001), efforts to detail the moral dilemmas organizations face (Jackall, 1988) and dramatic cases of ethical failure such as the Prestige oil spill, the Archer Daniels Midland price fixing scandal, the continued deception and consumer harm caused by tobacco companies, and the Enron collapse, have pushed questions of right and wrong to the forefront of organizational inquiry.
The purpose of this chapter is to describe the role of ethics in organization communication. The position of ethics in the larger domain of organizational communication is outlined, including the kinds of issues explored. Three frameworks for facilitating communication-based inquiry into the ethical dimensions of organizations are presented. These include culture, sensemaking and applied ethics. Finally, future directions for ethics and organizational communication are offered.
Organization communication, as a domain of research and practice, has typically privileged questions of effectiveness and efficiency over questions of ethics