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Generally in small group work our concern is focused on getting the job done while still maintaining reasonable relationships among group members. Although ethical communication is implicit in small group work, we seldom discuss it openly.

Ethics in small groups involves three levels:

- Individual group member
"I didn't complete the research on time for my part of the project. Should I think up an excuse? Or tell my group what happened: that I went to Las Vegas for the weekend instead of doing my research?"

- Group
Group A finds a published study that is identical to its project. Group members are pressed for time to complete their report. Should they just copy the study, making a few minor changes?

- Group environment
An organizational task force on safety identifies several current practices that put organization members at risk. Changing all those practices will cost the organization millions of dollars. Should the task force report all the findings to management? Report only those that would be less costly?

Although some ethical dilemmas are more easily solved than others, all involve making evaluations and judgments about what is morally right and wrong, what is fair and what is not fair, and what will cause harm and what will not cause harm.

What is Ethical Communication?
Ethics in small groups refers to the moral aspects of group interaction. The National Communication Association (NCA) states: "ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and other." Thus, ethical communication in small groups takes into account caring and responsibility for oneself and the other group members.

Ethics in Communication
NCA recently adopted a Credo for Ethical Communication. It is included here, although some principles are more applicable than others to small group communication.

- Truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason are essential to the integrity of communication.

- Endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society.

- Strive to understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages.

- Access to communication resources and opportunities are necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well being of families, communities, and society.

- Promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators.

- Condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intolerance, intimidation, coercion, hatred, and violence.

- Commit to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.

- Advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.

- Unethical communication threatens the quality of all communication and consequently the well being of individuals and the society in which we live.

- Accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.

In reading over these principles, you can note the two ethical communication themes of caring and responsibility. Some are obvious, such as: "Promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators," and "Accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others."

Other principles are not as obvious in their representation of these themes, yet the importance of ethics of care and responsibility are still clear. For example, "Access to communication resources and opportunities is necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well-being of families, communities, and society," emphasizes an ethic of caring and "Commit to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice," stresses an ethic of responsibility. Others integrate both caring and responsibility, such as, "Advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality." In following this last principle, communicators must take responsibility for encouraging all participants to share information, and at the same time, communicators must care for others by respecting others' wishes.

These principles also apply to important aspects of effective small group communication, such as teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, and diversity. Thus, ethical communication in small groups means that group members respect and encourage diverse opinions, do not tolerate communication that degrades and harms others, balance the sharing of information with a respect for privacy, and listen for understanding and empathy before evaluating and critiquing.

Applied Ethics

Ethics are more easily discussed than put into practice. However, a recent article in the San José Mercury News demonstrated the increasing trend in organizations to integrate a code of ethics into their daily activities. Propel , a start-up software company in Silicon Valley, recently hired Tom Shanks, an ethicist from Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics . According to the article, CEO and founder Steve Kirsch (Infoseek founder) is determined to make the organization's philosophical guidelines a natural part of how the company does business. These 13 guidelines, developed in organization members' discussions and posted on the company's website in two places (FAQs) and About), are:

1. Think and act like an owner.

2. Have fun.

3. Recognize accomplishment.

4. Keep a balance in your life.

5. Teach and learn from each other.

6. Communicate without fear of retribution.

7. Require quality beyond customer expectations.

8. Improve continuously.

9. Go the extra mile to take care of the customer.

10. Play to win-win.

11. Act with a sense of urgency.

12. Make and meet commitments.

13. Give back to the community.

Here we can see how Propel has taken many of NCA's ethical principles and applied them to the organization. For example, " Communicate without fear of retribution" parallels NCA's principle, " Commit to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice." In addition, the two themes, ethics of caring and responsibility, are interwoven in Propel's 13 guidelines.

Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics offers extensive information on the pragmatics of ethics. The Center serves as a resource for the campus and community. The Center's informative website includes a section on "A Framework For Ethical Decision Making." This framework is particularly applicable to small group members who face many complex decisions in achieving the group's objectives and goals. The Center suggests that competent communicators should:

- Recognize a Moral Issue

- Get the Facts

- Evaluate the Alternative Actions from Various Moral Perspectives

- Make a Decision

- Act

- Reflect on the Decision

For each step in the framework, individuals or group members need to address questions such as:

- Does the issue go deeper than legal or institutional concerns? What does it do to people as persons who have dignity, rights, and hopes for a better life together? (Recognize a Moral Issue)

- What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? (Get the Facts)

- Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (Evaluate the Alternative Actions from Various Moral Perspectives)

- If you told someone you respect why you chose this option, what would that person say? (Make a Decision)

- How did it turn out for all concerned? If you had to do it over again, what, if anything, would you do differently? (Reflect on the Decision)

Ethical communication requires effective critical thinking skills, recognizing the importance of diverse perspectives, respect for the well being of self and others, taking responsibility for individual and group actions, and reflecting on the choices group members make.


National Communication Association (2000). Credo on Ethical Communication. Available at:

O'Brien Hallstein, D. (1999). A postmodern caring: Feminist standpoint theories, revisioned caring, and communication ethics. Western Journal of Communication, 63, 32-56.

Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (2000). The ethics connection. Website available at:

Scheinin, R. (2000, April 16). Value judgments. San José Mercury News Silicon Valley Magazine, 8-16.


Applied Ethics in Professional Practice
Developed by the Professional Engineering Practice Liaison Program in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, this site not only includes information about professional ethics, but also allows you to participate in the case of the month.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics & Corporate Policy
The links section of the site provides a useful index of ethics resources on the WWW

Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions: Codes of Ethics Online Project
Part of the Illinois Institute of Technology website, this site provides a comprehensive compilation of codes of ethics used in a variety of contexts.

Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia
Lists print and WWW resources on ethics.

Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for Managers
A pragmatic approach to ethics in the workplace, the information included in the guide is applicable to small groups as well as large organizations. An example code of ethics lists the following: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, justice and fairness, civic virtue and citizenship.

Corporate Watch
"Corporate Watch provides news, analysis, research tools and action resources to respond to corporate activity around the globe. We also talk with people who are directly affected by corporate abuses as well as with others fighting for corporate accountability, human rights, social and environmental justice." Ethics on a macro scale, yet many of the principles that apply to small group contexts are applicable in the larger corporate environment as well.

DePaul University's Institute for Business and Professional Ethics
Sponsors the Online Journal of Ethics, as well as ethics resources grouped by topic and resources for instructors.

Ethics in Action
This is an interesting site and demonstrates how organizations use social responsible to their advantage. "Ethics in Action was created in 1994 in Vancouver, B.C., through a partnership between VanCity Savings Credit Union and The Workplace Ministry Society . . . . Companies with socially responsible practices are experiencing enhanced brand image and reputation, improved financial results, increased loyalty from customers and employees, and reduced regulatory oversight."

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
From the Center's Mission statement: "Established in 1986, the mission of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is to heighten ethical awareness and improve ethical decision-making on campus and in the community at large. . . . The Center promotes ethical decision-making that is guided by moral principles and values, such as respect for persons, justice, and compassion. It does not tell people what to think; but rather, tells people what to think about in making ethical decisions." Includes resources on ethical decision making, as well as links to other resources focusing on ethics.

National Communication Association Credo on Ethical Communication
An outgrowth of the NCA 1999 Conference on Communication Ethics, this site explains the rationale behind the development of a code of ethics in the field and describes the main components of such a code.

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