15 Ethical Guidelines for Writing

Understanding Ethical Guidelines for Writing

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to

  • describe plagiarism and ways to avoid it;
  • describe copyright and how to use others’ work ethically;
  • describe the function of workplace codes of ethics and conduct, related to information access and record management;
  • determine if a sample written summary of given source material would be considered plagiarism or not; and
  • identify ethical violations in supplied scenarios related to written workplace documents.


You love your new job working for a retailer of specialty athletic gear. As a member of the marketing team, you get the idea of writing some fake reviews on a popular online review portal to give your company and your team an edge. What’s the harm? No one will know. It’s not necessarily bad, because it’s not against the law. But would most people consider it the right thing to do?

Ethics is defined as “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). Ethical behaviour asks you to be concerned about what is inherently right or wrong in a given situation. The right thing to do may not always be obvious, and sometimes you have an ethical dilemma when there’s no clear answer.

To help in situations when you are trying to behave and communicate ethically, most organizations have guidelines in place to help people act in a way that is considered more right than wrong.

Plagiarism, “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own,” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.) is heavily frowned upon and typically carries big penalties. Effectively using sources and giving credit where credit is due is one way to avoid it.

Copyright, which you learned about briefly in the Foundations module chapter “A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words: Using Visuals” is a law that helps to stamp out plagiarism and other unauthorized uses of intellectual or creative property. Creative Commons builds upon copyright, enabling flexibility and openness through attribution and sharing while maintaining conditions that seek to prevent unauthorized use.

Because organizations contain so much information, there are often protocols in place to govern who has access to information and under what circumstances—unauthorized access is usually considered unethical. Similarly, records management principles and guidelines are also in place in most organizations, because employees need to take great care to ensure records and other personal or private company information is kept safe.

Codes of conduct are found within many organizations that give guidelines for ethical or proper behaviour.

Being able to balance the need for speed and clarity while staying ethically sound means one must cultivate the skill of writing respectfully. Words are powerful, especially in written documents. Respectful writing aims to balance courtesy, professionalism, and and conciseness in a way that is considerate of intended, secondary, and hidden audiences.


Plagiarism can occur on purpose or be accidental. It can also result from performance pressure, lapses in judgement, total ignorance, or a plethora of other reasons. This is why it is important to be vigilant and aim to be above reproach in your quest to write and communicate ethically. Examine the following high-profile examples of plagiarism about the University of Alberta’s Dean of Medicine and  the former head of the Toronto District School Board to get a feel for what it looks like and what the potential consequences can be.

There are some key ways to avoid passing off work that isn’t your own: namely, give credit where credit is due. Always. If you did not come up with the idea, saying, phrase, or thought yourself, cite your source and make it clear where the words or ideas came from; this is a crucial first step. However, to stay on the right side of the law and be aligned with good ethical practice, you often need to do more than just cite the source to avoid plagiarism.

Plagiarism can take many forms and be either intentional or unintentional. Follow this online tutorial where you will describe, identify the types of plagiarism, and demonstrate how to avoid it: http://www.ucd.ie/library/elearning/plagiarism/story.html

Check Your Understanding

Complete the module below on plagiarism:

Copyright and Creative Commons

Copyright and creative commons are among the most useful forms of intellectual property tools you will use as a writer of workplace documents. Other forms of intellectual property protection include things like patents, trademarks, and industrial designs (World Intellectual Property Organization, n.d.). In the Foundations module we learned that copyright is the exclusive and assignable legal right given to the originator for a fixed number of years to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material. Once the number of years expires on copyright (in Canada, normally 50 years after the copyright holder’s death), the work enters the public domain. A work enters the public domain when the creator’s intellectual property rights have expired, been forfeited, or are inapplicable. We also learned that Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share; the organization has released several copyright-licenses known as Creative Commons licenses free of charge to the public.

Organizations have a special interest in protecting themselves from being sued and also from damaging their brand. If you are responsible for composing documents in your workplace, you might know that in most cases your organization will own the copyright. If you are confused at all regarding a document you create or anything related to ensuring proper protocol around intellectual property, your best bet is to contact the appropriate person in Human Resources and/or the person responsible for legal matters in your organization. The information we provide here is general and should not be taken as legal advice.

Creative Commons licensing is a bit of a new kid on the block. Where people have been grappling with interpreting copyright laws for some time now, the risk with Creative Commons licensing is that it’s not as simple as it seems. People often think they are using the licenses correctly, but certain licenses are more compatible with some licences and less compatible with others. Here is a helpful chart that illustrates which licenses can and cannot be combined.

Creative Commons License Compatibility

Check Your Understanding

Complete the module below on copyright:

Access to Information and Records Management

Here we focus on ethical approaches to accessing information with respect to writing and working in organizations. With so much information around us, organizations often seek to effectively and efficiently manage access to information. Depending on your job or function, you may have access to several sensitive documents, databases, or repositories that can include things like trade secrets, employee information, patents, financial records, or customer/client information.On one hand you have the consumer perspective where people want to know what information organizations have collected about them. In Canada we have legislation such as the Privacy Act and PIPEDA (aka Digital Privacy act) to ensure certain standards in dealing with the government and other organizations and what information they have and can collect. However, on the other hand we have workers entrusted with the company’s information who must manage it responsibly and ethically. Here are several short case studies to illustrate more common issues regarding access to information and records management (with instructive comments in the section to follow):

Situation 1

Shana’s brother Dylan starts dating a girl named Zoe. Shana, a civilian clerical worker at the local police unit, thinks Zoe is pretty shady and doesn’t trust her. She decides to use her position to get a background check on Zoe.

Situation 2

Felix works in customer service for one of the big phone companies. His mom wants to rent out a room to a mature college student, but he’s wary about this person’s ability to pay. He decides to go through company records to see if the student has a track record of paying his phone bills on time.

Situation 3

Alicia works in financial analysis and stumbles across an amazing investment opportunity as part of her work. She decides to quietly make an investment and also encourages her financially struggling sister to get in on the investment while it’s hot.

Situation 4

Roger, a new dad and new homeowner, just began working as a senior administrator for his dream professional services company. Less than 90 days into the job, his boss comes to him in a panic and demands that he drop everything and start shredding boxes of documents. When Roger asks what the rush is, his boss tells him they are about to be raided and that heads will roll—including Roger’s—if the cops get hold of what’s in those documents.

Situation 5

Professor Smith has a thing for the handsome, intelligent student in her class. The student comes to her one day with flowers and a sad story about not being able to get a scholarship unless his A‒ becomes an A+. She accesses his paper record and simply draws a vertical stroke through the middle of the minus sign.

Situation 6

Billy Watson is writing a college exam. He is having trouble remembering his study notes, which he had compiled just the night before. He decides to take a peek at his cellphone while the proctor’s back is turned so he can get the right answers. He thinks he’s home free, until another exam proctor asks Billy to follow him after the exam.

Codes of Conduct in the Workplace

Codes of conduct come in various forms in organizations. Often during new hire orientation, workers will be exposed to the depth and range of company policies that they are expected to adhere to as a condition of employment. Depending on your role or position in the organization, some codes of conduct may be more applicable to certain people likely to find themselves in certain scenarios.

We cannot provide an exhaustive example of every possible code of conduct in every organization, but we can give brief examples of types of policies that would apply to the five scenarios you read above (in the Access to Information and Records Management section), as follows.

  1. Situation 1 has to do with privacy and access to information. Whether Shana accessed records herself or convinced someone else with authorized access to do it, the two main issues here are breach of privacy and unauthorized access to information. Putting the force’s reputation at risk with these actions can undermine trust in the organization.
  2. Felix’s situation is another case where access to information, privacy, and, in this case, financial records such as credit reports have been accessed in an unethical and possibly illegal way.
  3. In Alicia’s case, codes of conduct relating to insider information/trading and conflict of interest would likely apply here.
  4. Roger’s biggest issue here, should he follow his boss’s instructions, would be less about following codes of conduct and more about the criminal matter of destroying evidence.
  5. Professor Smith should be concerned about accepting a bribe and tampering with records.
  6. Billy’s cheating violated the student code of behaviour and resulted in academic probation.

Codes of conduct and other documents related to ethics, values, and rules that attempt to govern behaviour may not cover every possible situation or outcome. However, it is important to get to know the ones in your organization and also to get in touch with your own sense of values. Commonly known as the “tummy test,” whenever you find yourself in an ethical dilemma or other questionable moral workplace situation, using a combination of your workplace’s codes of conduct in conjunction with your own notion of what’s right and wrong is probably the best way to go.

Writing Respectfully

We learned in the Foundations module about the medium of writing. We learned that it’s not the most information rich method but that the written word, especially when it’s published on paper, is considered quite formal. We also learned about our audiences and how to meet their needs and expectations.

When we write respectfully, we aim to balance courtesy, professionalism, and conciseness.


You will notice that in most workplace documents, courtesy is embedded in the documents themselves. Take the business letter, for example, which begins with addressing the addressee as “Dear.” When you are courteous, it tells the audience that you are considering them and aiming to respect them. When the audience feels respected, they are usually more open to absorbing your message.

We learned about primary, secondary, and hidden audiences in the Foundations module. Being courteous means considering the needs and expectations of all potential audiences. Aiming for courtesy as a means of respect is a time-honoured tradition in human communication, and its expression can vary from one environment to the next. If you are writing for an audience or audiences outside your environment our culture, it makes sense to consult with someone more familiar with the target environment to ensure your courteous message can be received as intended.


Professionalism is described as “the competence or skill expected of a professional.” Included in this competence and skill are qualities normally found among ethical guidelines of various professional organizations, such as truthfulness, integrity, confidentiality, respect, and social responsibility. To be professional and write respectfully means being mindful of all of these elements and even having them supercede the desire for your own notions of personal expression. Workplace documents are not the place to insert your opinion or invoke your right to freedom of speech. Being a professional means understanding that there is a time and place for all kinds of expression, and your workplace is the time and place to put your organization front and centre of your communications.


Business people don’t like to read any more than they have to. This does not mean they don’t enjoy novels or articles; it just means that they are more likely to read workplace documents if they can identify that the information is useful, timely, and relevant to their needs. This comes back to the notion of keeping things short and to the point (as discussed in the section on plain language in the Foundations module) but in a way that balances conciseness with professionalism and courtesy.

Writing respectfully makes your message more palatable to your various audiences, professionalism ensures that ethics and competency are covered, and use of plain language principles keeps things concise in an era of information overload.

Writing respectfully may seem like a relatively basic aim, but is an important skill to master as we aim to communicate in a way that is ethical.


Now you have learned the definition of ethics and several scenarios showcasing ethical issues that can crop up when you write or work with documents in the workplace. You’ve learned about plagiarism and its pitfalls and how to guard against it with techniques like effective sourcing and using copyright laws and licenses like Creative Commons. You’ve seen pitfalls regarding access to information and information management and how codes of ethics along with your own “tummy test” can guard against landing your or your company in hot water. Finally, you learned about the virtues of writing respectfully, including the aim to always be courteous, professional, and concise in your business writing contexts.

Key Takeaways

  • The definition of ethics is “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”
  • Several common ethical issues exist in workplace writing, including plagiarism.
  • Copyright and Creative Commons can be used as tools to guard against plagiarism while ensuring to give credit where credit is due
  • You can use the “tummy test” or codes of conduct as methods to guard against ethical pitfalls around privacy or information management.
  • Writing respectfully is considered an ethical way to communicate and includes balancing courtesy, professionalism, and conciseness in business writing.

Further Reading and Links

If you would like to read more about finding, using, and attributing Creative Commons–licensed materials, see the following sites:


Association for Business Communication. (2005). Professional Ethics: Code of Conduct. Retrieved from http://www.businesscommunication.org/page/ethics.

Ethics. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ethics.

Plagiarism. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/plagiarism.

Professionalism. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/professionalism.

World Intellectual Property Organization. (n.d.). What is Intellectual Property? Retrieved from http://www.wipo.int/about-ip/en/index.html#ip.

Attribution Statement (Ethical Guidelines for Writing)

This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:

Chapter Content

Assessment items created by The Electronic Frontier Foundation for Teaching Copyright; published at http://www.oercommons.org/courses/definitions-of-copyright-what-do-they-know/view under a CC BY 3.0 license.


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Professional Communications Copyright © by Olds College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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