Teaching Communication with Ethics-Based Cases

By Stevens, Betsy | Business Communication Quarterly, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Teaching Communication with Ethics-Based Cases


Stevens, Betsy, Business Communication Quarterly


Business communication and ethics have both received increased attention in business school curricula. Calls for greater oral and written communication competencies continue to come from industry (Goodman, Hill, & Greene, 1991; Hildebrandt, Bond, Miller, & Edington, 1987). Also, ethics has been tendentiously advanced by executives and business school deans following the corporate greed of the 1980s and reports from groups such as the Treadway Commission (a committee of accounting and finance professionals) calling for corporate ethics policies. Corporate shareholders have indicated they desire a greater amount of ethical disclosure (Epstein, McEwen, & Spindle, 1994), further underscoring the importance of ethics. Faced with teaching both ethical concepts and communication principles, business communication instructors need effective pedagogical materials. Ethics-based cases, integrating both ethics and communication issues, can provide interesting challenges to the student.

Why should business students - or any student - study ethics? Socrates framed this question in The Republic when he asked, "How should one live?" We have concerned ourselves since that time with moral obligation, responsibility, character, social justice, and the meaning of good. Socrates believed passionately that the ethical life was supremely important to human beings and in Book X of The Republic, he argued that a person who acts unjustly suffers harmful consequences to his psyche (Jowett, 1871). If Socrates were alive today, he would contend that business people engaging in egregious behavior would have difficulty achieving harmony, peace, and inner contentment. The harm caused to others, of course, is often immeasurable.

Business receives continuing criticism from Americans whose opinion of corporate ethics is fairly low. Government and big business were ostracized by college students and other protestors in the 1970s; and this criticism, although uttered in sotto voice, has continued into the 1980s and 1990s. A poll in the late 1980s showed that 40% of respondents thought white-collar crime was "very common" in business (Lipset & Schneider, 1987); a 1992 Gallup poll showed that only 20% of respondents rated the honesty and ethical standards of business people "high" or "very high" (McAneny, 1992). In 1993, a poll ranking business executives in terms of their perceived honesty and ethicality placed them 13th out of 26 professions, with pharmacists in first place (McAneny, 1993).

Ethics and Communication

Much of what is controversial in the workplace today revolves around ethics and the ways people express their views. Current issues of gender equality, cross-cultural communication, inclusiveness, and the tenor of the work environment evoke both ethical issues and issues of communication style. Ethics is inextricably tied to communication. The rhetorical acts of persuading or of simply passing on information are deeply influenced by individual ethical perspectives. Few would dispute that rhetorical practices have a moral dimension. What is appropriate to say and do shifts with one's paradigm of right and wrong, sense of personal character, responsibility, social justice, and even one's view of political correctness.

Ethos, one of the three proofs or arguments discussed in Aristotle's Rhetoric, focuses on the ethical dimensions of argument (Aristotle, 1984). Aristotle postulated that ethos, along with emotional appeals (pathos) and logical, rational appeals (logos), comprise the critical elements of persuasion. These elements continue with strong currency today and appear in both persuasion and management texts (Covey, 1989). Ethos means conveying to the audience a favorable impression of character. A speaker with high ethos is seen as taking an honest position, not misrepresenting facts, having sufficient intelligence to understand the issues, and being well disposed to the listeners' interests.

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