Ethics in Technical Communication

In November 2017 I decided to join the ISTC, or Institute for Scientific and Technical Communication. As with many professional organisations, a requirement for joining is that you follow the Code of Professional Practice; a link to the PDF can be found here.

The Code of Professional Practice states that you should provide the highest standards of:

  • Honesty
  • Legality
  • Quality
  • Teamwork
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Social responsibility
  • Professional growth
  • Respect privacy and intellectual property

A recent lecture on Ethics made me reflect on the ISTC Code of Practice and look back at the various organisations that I have worked for throughout my career. It raised a few questions in my mind, why do documents like this exist? Doesn’t everyone already follow these codes of practice naturally? And, if you are the type of person who doesn’t agree with these codes of practice, are you the type of person to join a professional organisation?

When you start a new job, as part of the recruitment process you (usually) sign some sort of code of conduct, that includes information on how to act in the workplace. However, more often than not, these codes of conduct don’t include ethical characteristics such as honesty and quality. In the conference paper “Use your fog lights: ten values for technical communicators” (Allen and Voss 1999) the authors provide a set of scenarios for ethical values, as well as defining what each one means. Many professions have their own set of professional practices, which I assume all follow similar, if not exact characteristics. I think that this article is something that many people (who are non-technical communicators) would benefit from reading.

I have heard stories in the past from people who have unknowingly been placed in unethical situations as a result of pressure from bosses and clients. On reflection, I wonder if they always identified their situation as being unethical and went along with the situation? Or Were they possibly ignorant of the situation and unaware what was really happening?

Maybe this is the reason we need codes of professional practice; to define the standards for individuals joining the organisation. To define ethical and non-ethical practice, to make people AWARE that there are rules to be followed and if you are unable to follow them, there may be repercussions. However, in a way it’s a shame that these values have to be defined and that we need to remind people to be honest, follow the law and provide quality work to the best of your ability.


Allen, L. and Voss, D. (1999) ‘Use your fog lights: ten values for technical communicators’, Professional Communication Conference, New Orleans, LA, USA, 7-10 Sept, IEEE International available:

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