8.2 Workplace Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Contract common and divergent cultural characteristics of the workplace.
  2. Discuss professionalism.
  3. Evaluate professional communication.


Cultural Characteristics of the Workplace – Commonalities

While we may be members of many different cultures, we tend to adhere to some more than others. Perhaps you have become friendly with several of your fellow students as you’ve pursued your studies in college. As you take many of the same classes and share many experiences on campus, you begin to have more and more in common, in effect forming a small group culture of your own. A similar cultural formation process may happen in the workplace, where coworkers spend many hours each week sharing work experiences and getting to know each other socially in the process.

Groups come together, form cultures, and grow apart across time. How does one become a member of a community, and how do you know when you are a full member? What aspects of culture do we have in common and how do they relate to business communication? Researchers who have studied cultures around the world have identified certain characteristics that define a culture. These characteristics are expressed in different ways, but they tend to be present in nearly all cultures. Let’s examine them.

Rites of Initiation

Cultures tend to have a ritual for becoming a new member. A newcomer starts out as a nonentity, a stranger, an unaffiliated person with no connection or even possibly awareness of the community. Newcomers who stay around and learn about the culture become members. Most cultures have a rite of initiation that marks the passage of the individual within the community; some of these rituals may be so informal as to be hardly noticed (e.g., the first time a coworker asks you to join the group to eat lunch together), while others may be highly formalized (e.g., the ordination of clergy in a religion). The nonmember becomes a member, the new member becomes a full member, and individuals rise in terms of responsibility and influence.

Business communities are communities first because without communication interaction, no business will occur. Even if sales and stock are processed by servers that link database platforms to flow, individuals are still involved in the maintenance, repair, and development of the system. Where there is communication, there is culture, and every business has several cultures.

Across the course of your life, you have no doubt passed several rites of initiation but may not have taken notice of them. Did you earn a driver’s license, register to vote, or acquire the permission to purchase alcohol? In North American culture, these three common markers indicate the passing from a previous stage of life to a new one, with new rights and responsibilities. As a child, you were not allowed to have a driver’s license. At age fourteen to eighteen, depending on your state and location (rural versus urban), you were allowed to drive a tractor, use farm equipment, operate a motor vehicle during daylight hours, or have full access to public roads. With the privilege of driving comes responsibility. It is your responsibility to learn what the signs and signals mean and to obey traffic laws for the common safety. In order for stop signs to work, we all have to agree on the behavior associated with them and observe that behavior.

Sometimes people choose to ignore a stop sign, or accidentally miss one, and it places the public in danger. Law enforcement officials reinforce that common safety as representatives of the culture, empowered by the people themselves based on a common agreement of what a stop sign means and what a driver is supposed to do when approaching one. Some people may argue that law enforcement serves some while it prosecutes others. This point of debate may deserve some consideration, but across cultures, there are rules, signs, and symbols that we share.

Rites of initiation mark the transition of the role or status of the individual within the group. Your first day on the job may have been a challenge as you learned your way around the physical space, but the true challenge was to learn how the group members communicate with each other. If you graduate from college with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, you will already have passed a series of tests, learned terms and theories, and possess a symbol of accomplishment in your diploma, but that only grants you the opportunity to look for a job—to seek access to a new culture.

In every business, there are groups, power struggles, and unspoken ways that members earn their way from the role of a “newbie” to that of a full member. The newbie may get the tough account, the office without a window, or the cubicle next to the bathroom, denoting low status. As the new member learns to navigate through the community—establishing a track record and being promoted—he passes the rite of initiation and acquires new rights and responsibilities.

Over time, the person comes to be an important part of the business, a “keeper of the flame.” The “flame” may not exist in physical space or time, but it does exist in the minds of those members in the community who have invested time and effort in the business. It is not a flame to be trusted to a new person, as it can only be earned with time. Along the way, there may be personality conflicts and power struggles over resources and perceived scarcity (e.g., there is only one promotion and everyone wants it). All these challenges are to be expected in any culture.

Common History and Traditions

Think for a moment about the history of a business like Ford Motor Company—what are your associations with Henry Ford, the assembly line manufacturing system, or the Model T? Or the early days of McDonald’s? Do you have an emotional response to mental images of the “golden arches” logo, Ronald McDonald, or the Big Mac sandwich? Traditions form as the organization grows and expands, and stories are told and retold to educate new members on how business should be conducted. The history of every culture, of every corporation, influences the present. There are times when the phrase “we’ve tried that before” can become stumbling block for members of the organization as it grows and adapts to new market forces. There may be struggles between members who have weathered many storms and new members, who come armed with new educational perspectives, technological tools, or experiences that may contribute to growth.

Common Values and Principles

Cultures all hold values and principles that are commonly shared and communicated from older members to younger (or newer) ones. Time and length of commitment are associated with an awareness of these values and principles, so that new members, whether they are socialized at home, in school, or at work, may not have a thorough understanding of their importance. For example, time (fast customer service) and cleanliness are two cornerstone values of the McDonald’s corporation. A new employee may take these for granted, while a seasoned professional who inspects restaurants may see the continued need to reinforce these core values. Without reinforcement, norms may gradually change, and if this were the case it could fundamentally change the customer experience associated with McDonald’s.

Common Purpose and Sense of Mission

Cultures share a common sense of purpose and mission. Why are we here and whom do we serve? These are fundamental questions of the human condition that philosophers and theologians all over the world have pondered for centuries. In business, the answers to these questions often address purpose and mission, and they can be found in mission and vision statements of almost every organization. Individual members will be expected to acknowledge and share the mission and vision, actualize them, or make them real through action. Without action, the mission and vision statements are simply an arrangement of words. As a guide to individual and group behavioral norms, they can serve as a powerful motivator and a call to action.

Common Symbols, Boundaries, Status, Language, and Rituals

Most of us learn early in life what a stop sign represents, but do we know what military stripes represent on a sleeve, or a ten-year service pin on a lapel, or a corner office with two windows? Cultures have common symbols that mark them as a group; the knowledge of what a symbol stands for helps to reinforce who is a group member and who is not. You may have a brand on your arm from your fraternity, or wear a college ring—symbols that represent groups you affiliate with temporarily, while you are a student. They may or may not continue to hold meaning to you when your college experience is over. Cultural symbols include dress, such as the Western business suit and tie, the Scottish kilt, or the Islamic headscarf. Symbols also include slogans or sayings, such as “you’re in good hands” or “you deserve a break today.” The slogan may serve a marketing purpose but may also embrace a mission or purpose within the culture. Family crests and clan tartan patterns serve as symbols of affiliation. Symbols can also be used to communicate rank and status within the group.

Space is another common cultural characteristic; it may be a nonverbal symbol that represents status and power. In most of the world’s cultures, a person occupying superior status is entitled to a physically elevated position—a throne, a dais, a podium from which to address subordinates. Subordinates may be expected to bow, curtsy, or lower their eyes as a sign of respect. In business, the corner office may offer the best view with the most space. Movement from a cubicle to a private office may also be a symbol of transition within an organization, involving increased responsibility as well as power. Parking spaces, the kind of vehicle you drive, and the transportation allowance you have may also serve to communicate symbolic meaning within an organization.

The office serves our discussion on the second point concerning boundaries. Would you sit on your boss’s desk or sit in his chair with your feet up on the desk in his presence? Most people indicate they would not, because doing so would communicate a lack of respect, violate normative space expectations, and invite retaliation. Still, subtle challenges to authority may arise in the workplace. A less than flattering photograph of the boss at the office party posted to the recreational room bulletin board communicates more than a lack of respect for authority. By placing the image anonymously in a public place, the prankster clearly communicates a challenge, even if it is a juvenile one. Movement from the cubicle to the broom closet may be the result for someone who is found responsible for the prank. Again, there are no words used to communicate meaning, only symbols, but those symbols represent significant issues.

Communities have their own vocabulary and way in which they communicate. Consider the person who uses a sewing machine to create a dress and the accountant behind the desk; both are professionals and both have specialized jargon used in their field. If they were to change places, the lack of skills would present an obstacle, but the lack of understanding of terms, how they are used, and what they mean would also severely limit their effectiveness. Those terms and how they are used are learned over time and through interaction. While a textbook can help, it cannot demonstrate use in live interactions. Cultures are dynamic systems that reflect the communication process itself.

Cultures celebrate heroes, denigrate villains, and have specific ways of completing jobs and tasks. In business and industry, the emphasis may be on effectiveness and efficiency, but the practice can often be “because that is the way we have always done it.” Rituals serve to guide our performance and behavior and may be limited to small groups or celebrated across the entire company. A pink Cadillac has a special meaning for a Mary Kay cosmetics representative. How that car is received is ritualistic, recognizing current success while honoring past performances across the company.

Rituals can serve to bind a group together, or to constrain it. Institutions tend to formalize processes and then have a hard time adapting to new circumstances. While the core values or mission statement may hold true, the method of doing things that worked in the past may not be as successful as it once was. Adaptation and change can be difficult for individuals and companies, and yet all communities, cultures, and communication contexts are dynamic, or always changing. As much as we might like things to stay the same, they will always change—and we will change with (and be changed by) them.

Divergent Cultural Characteristics

We are not created equal. We are born light- or dark-skinned, to parents of education or parents without access to education, and we grow up short or tall, slender or stocky. Our life chances or options are in many ways determined by our birth. The Victorian “rags to riches” novels that Horatio Alger wrote promoted the ideal that individuals can overcome all obstacles, raising themselves up by their bootstraps. Some people do have amazing stories, but even if you are quick to point out that Microsoft founder Bill Gates became fabulously successful despite his lack of a college education, know that his example is exception, not the rule. We all may use the advantages of our circumstances to improve our lives, but the type and extent of those advantages vary greatly across the planet.

Cultures reflect this inequality, this diversity, and the divergent range of values, symbols, and meanings across communities. Can you tie a knot? Perhaps you can tie your shoes, but can you tie a knot to secure a line to a boat, to secure a heavy load on a cart or truck, or to bundle a bale of hay? You may not be able to, but if you were raised in a culture that place a high value on knot-tying for specific purposes, you would learn that which your community values. We all have viewpoints, but they are shaped by our interactions with our communities. Let’s examine several points of divergence across cultures.

Individualistic versus Collectivist Cultures

People in individualistic cultures value individual freedom and personal independence, and cultures always have stories to reflect their values. You may recall the story of Superman, or John McLean in the Diehard series, and note how one person overcomes all obstacles. Through personal ingenuity, in spite of challenges, one person rises successfully to conquer or vanquish those obstacles. Sometimes there is an assist, as in basketball or football, where another person lends a hand, but still the story repeats itself again and again, reflecting the cultural viewpoint.

The Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede (Hofstede, G., 1982; Hofstede, G., 2001; Hofstede, G., 2005) found that in individualistic cultures like the United States, people perceived their world primarily from their own viewpoint. They perceived themselves as empowered individuals, capable of making their own decisions, and able to make an impact on their own lives. This may be in contrast with collectivist cultures (Hofstede, G., 1982) who tend to focus on the needs of the nation, community, or group of workers. How does someone raised in a culture that emphasizes the community interact with someone raised in a primarily individualistic culture? How might they approach work differently? How could tensions be expressed and how might interactions be influenced by this point of divergence? These differences can certainly cause points of contention when working with someone who has the opposite viewpoint as you.

Explicit-Rule Cultures versus Implicit-Rule Cultures

Do you know the rules of your business or organization? Did you learn them from an employee manual or by observing the conduct of others? Your response may include both options, but not all cultures communicate rules in the same way. Carley Dodd discusses this difference and has found quite a range of differences. In an explicit-rule culture, where rules are clearly communicated so that everyone is aware of them, the guidelines and agenda for a meeting are announced prior to the gathering. In an implicit-rule culture, where rules are often understood and communicated nonverbally, there may be no agenda. Everyone knows why they are gathered and what role each member plays, even though the expectations may not be clearly stated. Power, status, and behavioral expectations may all be understood, and to the person from outside this culture, it may prove a challenge to understand the rules of the context.

Outsiders often communicate their “otherness” by not knowing where to stand, when to sit, or how to initiate a conversation if the rules are not clearly stated. While it may help to know that implicit-rule cultures are often more tolerant of deviation from the understood rules, the newcomer will be wise to learn by observing quietly—and to do as much research ahead of the event as possible.

Uncertainty-Accepting Cultures versus Uncertainty-Rejecting Cultures

When we meet each other for the first time, we often use what we have previously learned to understand our current context. We also do this to reduce our uncertainty. Some cultures, such as the United States and Britain, are highly tolerant of uncertainty, while others go to great lengths to reduce the element of surprise. Cultures in the Arab world, for example, are high in uncertainty avoidance; they tend to be resistant to change and reluctant to take risks. Whereas a U.S. business negotiator might enthusiastically agree to try a new procedure, the Egyptian counterpart would likely refuse to get involved until all the details are worked out.

Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese developed uncertainty reduction theory to examine this dynamic aspect of communication. Here are seven axioms of uncertainty:

  1. There is a high level of uncertainty at first. As we get to know one another, our verbal communication increases and our uncertainty begins to decrease.
  2. Following verbal communication, nonverbal communication increases, uncertainty continues to decrease, and more nonverbal displays of affiliation, like nodding one’s head to indicate agreement, will start to be expressed.
  3. When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, we tend to increase our information-seeking behavior, perhaps asking questions to gain more insight. As our understanding increases, uncertainty decreases, as does the information-seeking behavior.
  4. When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, the communication interaction is not as personal or intimate. As uncertainty is reduced, intimacy increases.
  5. When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, communication will feature more reciprocity, or displays of respect. As uncertainty decreases, reciprocity may diminish.
  6. Differences between people increase uncertainty, while similarities decrease it.
  7. Higher levels of uncertainty are associated with a decrease in the indication of liking the other person, while reductions in uncertainty are associated with liking the other person more.

Time Orientation

Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall state that monochronic time-oriented cultures consider one thing at a time, whereas polychronic time-oriented cultures schedule many things at one time, and time is considered in a more fluid sense. In monochromatic time, interruptions are to be avoided, and everything has its own specific time. Even the multitasker from a monochromatic culture will, for example, recognize the value of work first before play or personal time. The United States, Germany, and Switzerland are often noted as countries that value a monochromatic time orientation.

Polychromatic time looks a little more complicated, with business and family mixing with dinner and dancing. Greece, Italy, Chile, and Saudi Arabia are countries where one can observe this perception of time; business meetings may be scheduled at a fixed time, but when they actually begin may be another story. Also, note that the dinner invitation for 8 p.m. may in reality be more like 9 p.m. If you were to show up on time, you might be the first person to arrive and find that the hosts are not quite ready to receive you.

When in doubt, always ask what is appropriate; many people from polychromatic cultures will be used to foreigner’s tendency to be punctual, even compulsive, about respecting established times for events. The skilled business communicator is aware of this difference and takes steps to anticipate it. The value of time in different cultures is expressed in many ways, and your understanding can help you communicate more effectively.

Short-Term versus Long-Term Orientation

Do you want your reward right now or can you dedicate yourself to a long-term goal? You may work in a culture whose people value immediate results and grow impatient when those results do not materialize. Geert Hofstede discusses this relationship of time orientation to a culture as a “time horizon,” and it underscores the perspective of the individual within a cultural context. Many countries in Asia, influenced by the teachings of Confucius, value a long-term orientation, whereas other countries, including the United States, have a more short-term approach to life and results. Native American cultures are known for holding a long-term orientation, as illustrated by the proverb attributed to the Iroquois that decisions require contemplation of their impact seven generations removed.

If you work within a culture that has a short-term orientation, you may need to place greater emphasis on reciprocation of greetings, gifts, and rewards. For example, if you send a thank-you note the morning after being treated to a business dinner, your host will appreciate your promptness. While there may be a respect for tradition, there is also an emphasis on personal representation and honor, a reflection of identity and integrity. Personal stability and consistency are also valued in a short-term oriented culture, contributing to an overall sense of predictability and familiarity.

Long-term orientation is often marked by persistence, thrift and frugality, and an order to relationships based on age and status. A sense of shame for the family and community is also observed across generations. What an individual does reflects on the family and is carried by immediate and extended family members.

Masculine versus Feminine Orientation

There was a time when many cultures and religions valued a female figurehead, and with the rise of Western cultures we have observed a shift toward a masculine ideal. Each carries with it a set of cultural expectations and norms for gender behavior and gender roles across life, including business.

Hofstede describes the masculine-feminine dichotomy not in terms of whether men or women hold the power in a given culture, but rather the extent to which that culture values certain traits that may be considered masculine or feminine. Thus, “the assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine.’ The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values” (Hofstede, G., 2009).

We can observe this difference in where people gather, how they interact, and how they dress. We can see it during business negotiations, where it may make an important difference in the success of the organizations involved. Cultural expectations precede the interaction, so someone who doesn’t match those expectations may experience tension. Business in the United States has a masculine orientation—assertiveness and competition are highly valued. In other cultures, such as Sweden, business values are more attuned to modesty (lack of self-promotion) and taking care of society’s weaker members. This range of difference is one aspect of intercultural communication that requires significant attention when the business communicator enters a new environment.

Direct versus Indirect

In the United States, business correspondence is expected to be short and to the point. “What can I do for you?” is a common question when a business person receives a call from a stranger; it is an accepted way of asking the caller to state his or her business. In some cultures it is quite appropriate to make direct personal observation, such as “You’ve changed your hairstyle,” while for others it may be observed, but never spoken of in polite company. In indirect cultures, such as those in Latin America, business conversations may start with discussions of the weather, or family, or topics other than business as the partners gain a sense of each other, long before the topic of business is raised. Again, the skilled business communicator researches the new environment before entering it, as a social faux pas, or error, can have a significant impact.

Materialism versus Relationships

Does the car someone drives say something about them? You may consider that many people across the planet do not own a vehicle and that a car or truck is a statement of wealth. But beyond that, do the make and model reflect their personality? If you are from a materialistic culture, you may be inclined to say yes. If you are from a culture that values relationships rather than material objects, you may say no or focus on how the vehicle serves the family. From rocks that display beauty and wealth—what we call jewelry—to what you eat—will it be lobster ravioli or prime rib?—we express our values and cultural differences with our purchase decisions.

Members of a materialistic culture place emphasis on external goods and services as a representation of self, power, and social rank. If you consider the plate of food before you, and consider the labor required to harvest the grain, butcher the animal, and cook the meal, you are focusing more on the relationships involved with its production than the foods themselves. Caviar may be a luxury, and it may communicate your ability to acquire and offer a delicacy, but it also represents an effort. Cultures differ in how they view material objects and their relationship to them, and some value people and relationships more than the objects themselves. The United States and Japan are often noted as materialistic cultures, while many Scandinavian nations feature cultures that place more emphasis on relationships.

Low-Power versus High-Power Distance

How comfortable are you with critiquing your boss’s decisions? If you are from a low-power distance culture, your answer might be “no problem.” In low-power distance cultures, according to Hofstede, people relate to one another more as equals and less as a reflection of dominant or subordinate roles, regardless of their actual formal roles as employee and manager, for example.

In a high-power distance culture, you would probably be much less likely to challenge the decision, to provide an alternative, or to give input. If you are working with people from a high-power distance culture, you may need to take extra care to elicit feedback and involve them in the discussion because their cultural framework may preclude their participation. They may have learned that less powerful people must accept decisions without comment, even if they have a concern or know there is a significant problem. Unless you are sensitive to cultural orientation and power distance, you may lose valuable information.

Communicating better requires an understanding of cultural differences. In the following video, Julien Bourrelle explores how our cultures drive our behaviors and how this can create communication challenges.



What is professionalism? A profession is an occupation that involves mastery of complex knowledge and skills through prolonged training, education, or practical experience. Becoming a member of a specific profession doesn’t happen overnight. Whether you seek to be a public relations expert, lawyer, doctor, teacher, welder, or electrician, each profession requires interested parties to invest themselves in learning to become a professional or a member of a profession who earns their living through specified expert activity. It’s much easier to define the terms “profession” and “professional” than it is to define the term “professionalism” because each profession will have its take on what it means to be a professional within a given field.

According to the United States Department of Labor,1 professionalism “does not mean wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase; rather, it means conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. It means communicating effectively and appropriately and always finding a way to be productive.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s book Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success goes on to note:

Professionalism isn’t one thing; it’s a combination of qualities. A professional employee arrives on time for work and manages time effectively. Professional workers take responsibility for their own behavior and work effectively with others. High-quality work standards, honesty, and integrity are also part of the package. Professional employees look clean and neat and dress appropriately for the job. Communicating effectively and appropriately for the workplace is also an essential part of professionalism.2

Professional Communication

As you can see here, professionalism isn’t a single “thing” that can be labeled. Instead, professionalism refers to the aims and behaviors that demonstrate an individual’s level of competence expected by a professional within a given profession. By the word “aims,” we mean that someone who exhibits professionalism is guided by a set of goals in a professional setting. Whether the aim is to complete a project on time or help ensure higher quarterly incomes for their organization, professionalism involves striving to help one’s organization achieve specific goals. By “behaviors,” we mean specific ways of behaving and communicating within an organizational environment. Some common behaviors can include acting ethically, respecting others, collaborating effectively, taking personal and professional responsibility, and using language professionally. Let’s look at each of these separately.


Every year there are lapses in ethical judgment by organizations and organizational members. For our purposes, let’s look at ethical lapses in 2017 and 2018.

1. We saw aviation police officers drag a bloodied pulmonologist off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat on United Airlines.
2. We saw the beginnings of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 after Alyssa Milano uses the hashtag in response to actor Ashley Judd accusing media mogul Harvey Weinstein of serious sexual misconduct in an article within The New York Times. Since that critical moment, many courageous victims of sexual violence have raised their voices to take on the male elites in our society who had gotten away with these behaviors for decades.
3. Facebook (among others) was found to have accepted advertisements indirectly paid for by the Kremlin that influenced the 2016 election. The paid advertisements constituted a type of cyber warfare.
4. Equifax had a data breach that affected 145 million people (mostly U.S. citizens as well as some British and Canadian customers) and didn’t publicly disclose this for two months.
5. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, committed many ethical lapses during his tenure with the agency prompting his resignation. Some of the ethical lapses included ordering raises for two aides even when White House rejected them, spending $3.5 million (twice times as much as his predecessor) on taxpayer-funded security, using that security to pick up his favorite moisturizing lotion and dry-cleaning, renting a room from a lobbyist who had dealings with the EPA for $50 per night, installing a $43,000 private phone booth in his office that allegedly was used once, spending $124,000 on first-class flights, purchasing two season-ticket seats at a University of Kentucky basketball game from a billionaire coal executive, tried to use his position to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, and others.

Sadly, these ethical lapses are still frequent in corporate America, and they often come with huge lawsuit settlements and jail time.

The word “ethics” actually is derived from the Greek word ethos, which means the nature or disposition of a culture. From this perspective, ethics then involves the moral center of a culture that governs behavior. Without getting too deep, let’s just say that philosophers debate the very nature of ethics, and they have described a wide range of different philosophical perspectives on what constitutes ethics. For our purposes, ethics is the judgmental attachment to whether something is good, right, or just.

In the business world, we often talk about business ethics, which involves things like not stealing from a company; not lying to one’s boss, coworkers, customers, or clients; not taking bribes, payoffs, or kickbacks; not taking credit for someone else’s work; not abusing and belittling someone in the workplace; or simply letting other people get away with unethical behavior. For example, if you know your organization has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination and you know that one supervisor is purposefully not hiring pregnant women because “they’ll just be leaving on maternity leave soon anyway,” then you are just as responsible as that supervisor. We might also add that discriminating against someone who is pregnant or can get pregnant is also a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity law, so you can see that often the line between ethics and rules (or laws) can be blurred.

From a communication perspective, there are also ethical issues that you should be aware of. W. Charles Redding, the “father” of organizational communication, breaks down unethical organizational communication into six specific categories (Table 13.1).4

Reprinted with permission from Wrench, Punyanunt, and Ward’s book Organizational Communication: Theory, Practice, and Research
(2014, Flat World Knowledge)
Table 13.1. Redding’s Typology of Unethical Communication
An organizational communication act is unethical if it is… Such organizational communication unethically…
coercive • abuses power or authority
• unjustifiably invades others’ autonomy
• stigmatizes dissents
• restricts freedom of speech
• refuses to listen
• uses rules to stifle discussion and complaints
destructive • attacks others’ self-esteem, reputations, or feelings
• disregards other’s values
• engages in insults, innuendoes, epithets, or derogatory jokes
• uses put-downs, backstabbing, and character assassination
• employs so-called “truth” as a weapon
• violates confidentiality and privacy to gain an advantage
• withholds constructive feedback
deceptive • willfully perverts the truth to deceive, cheat, or defraud
• sends evasive or deliberately misleading or ambiguous messages
• employs bureaucratic euphemisms to cover up the truth
intrusive • uses hidden cameras
• taps telephones
• employs computer technologies to monitor employee behavior
• disregards legitimate privacy rights
secretive • uses silence and unresponsiveness
• hoards information
• hides wrongdoing or ineptness
manipulative/exploitative • uses demagoguery
• gains compliance by exploiting fear, prejudice, or ignorance
• patronizes or is condescending toward others
As you can see, unethical organizational communication is an area many people do not overly consider.
Respect for Others
Our second category related to professionalism is respecting others. In Disney’s 1942 movie, Bambi, Thumper sees the young Bambi learning to walk, which leads to the following interaction with his mother:
Thumper: He doesn’t walk very good, does he?
Mrs. Rabbit: Thumper!
Thumper: Yes, Mama?
Mrs. Rabbit: What did your father tell you this morning?
Thumper: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.
Sadly, many people exist in the modern workplace that need a refresher in respect from Mrs. Rabbit today. From workplace bullying to sexual harassment, many people simply do not always treat people with dignity and respect in the workplace. So, what do we mean by treating someone with respect? There are a lot of behaviors one can engage in that are respectful if you’re interacting with coworkers, leaders, or followers.
Here’s a list of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions:
• Be courteous, polite, and kind to everyone.
• Do not criticize or nitpick at little inconsequential things.
• Do not engage in patronizing or demeaning behaviors.
• Don’t engage in physically hostile body language.
• Don’t roll your eyes when your coworkers are talking.
• Don’t use an aggressive tone of voice when talking with coworkers.
• Encourage coworkers to express opinions and ideas.
• Encourage your coworkers to demonstrate respect to each other as well.
• Listen to your coworkers openly without expressing judgment before they’ve finished speaking.
• Listen to your coworkers without cutting them off or speaking over them.
• Make sure you treat all of your coworkers fairly and equally.
• Make sure your facial expressions are appropriate and not aggressive.
• Never engage in verbally aggressive behavior: insults, name-calling, rumor mongering, disparaging,
and putting people or their ideas down.
• Praise your coworkers more often than you criticize them. Point out when they’re doing great
things, not just when they’re doing “wrong” things.
• Provide an equal opportunity for all coworkers to provide insight and input during meetings.
• Treat people the same regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.
• When expressing judgment, focus on criticizing ideas, and not the person.

Unbiased Language

Now that we’ve looked at a wide range of ways that you can show your respect for your coworkers, we would be remiss if we didn’t bring up one specific area where you can demonstrate respect: the language we use. In a recent meeting, one of our coauthors was reporting on some work that was being completed on campus and let people in the meeting know that some people were already “grandfathered in” to the pre-existing process. Without really intending to, our coauthor had used gendered language. One of the other people in the room quickly quipped, “or grandmothered.” Upon contemplation, our coauthor realized that the seemingly innocuous use of the phrase “grandfathered in,” which admittedly is very common, is one that has a gendered connotation that limits it to males. Even though our coauthor’s purpose had never been to engage in sexist language, the English language is filled with sexist language examples, and they come all too quickly to many of us because of tradition and the way we were taught the language. This experience was a perfect reminder for our coauthor about the importance of thinking about sexist and biased language and how it impacts the workplace. Table 13.2 is a list of common sexist or biased language and corresponding inclusive terms that one could use instead.
Table 13.2. Replacing Sexist or Biased Language with Inclusive Terms
Sexist or Biased Language Inclusive Term
cancer victim; AIDS victim cancer patient; person living with AIDS
chairman chairperson or chair
confined to a wheelchair uses a wheelchair
congressman  congressperson
Eskimo Inuit or Aleut
fireman firefighters
freshman first-year student
Indian (when referring to U.S. indigenous peoples) Native American or specific tribe
policeman police officer
man or mankind people, humanity, or the human race
man hours working hours
man-made manufactured, machine made, or synthetic
manpower personnel or workforce
Negro or colored African American or Black
old people or elderly senior citizens, mature adults, older adults
Oriental Asian, Asian American, or specific country of origin
postman or mailman postal worker or mail carrier
steward or stewardess flight attendant
suffers from diabetes has diabetes; person living with diabetes
to man to operate; to staff; to cover
waiter or waitress server

We live in a world where respect and bias are not always acknowledged in the workplace setting. Sadly, despite decades of anti-discrimination legislation and training, we know this is still a problem. Women, minorities, and other non-dominant groups are still woefully underrepresented in a broad range of organizational positions, from management to CEO. Some industries are better than others, but this problem is still very persistent in the United States. Most of us mindlessly participate in these systems without even being consciously aware. Byron Lee puts it this way: Our brains rapidly categorize people using both obvious and subtler characteristics, and also automatically assign an unconscious evaluation (eg good or bad) and an emotional tone (ie. pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant) with this memory. Importantly, because these unconscious processes happen without awareness, control, intention, or effort, everyone, no matter how fair-minded we might think we are, is unconsciously biased.

These unconscious biases often lead us to engage in microaggressions against people we view as “other.” Microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”6 Notice that microaggressions can be targeted at women, minorities, and other non-dominant groups. Research has shown us that these unconscious biases affect everything from perceptions of hire ability, to job promotions, to determining who gets laid off, and so many other areas within the workplace.

Byron Lee has devised a five-point strategy for engaging in mindful intercultural interactions:

1. Preparing for your interpersonal encounter by recognizing and gently observing preconceptions, biases, emotions, and sensations as part of your ongoing internal experience (Nonjudging). Bringing into awareness an intention to connect (Presence).
2. Beginning your conversation by remaining open to hear whatever the person may bring (Acceptance), and a willingness to get close to and understand another’s suffering (Empathic Concern).
3. Bringing a kindly curiosity to your own internal experience and to the experiences shared by the other person throughout the encounter (Beginner’s Mind).
4. Noticing and letting go of your urge to “fix” the “problem” (Non-striving) and letting the process unfold in its own time (Patience).
5. The collaborative interaction concludes when you mutually reach a way forward that reflects the other person’s worldview and needs (Compassionate Action), and not your own (Letting Go).7

For this activity, we want you to explore some of your own unconscious biases. To start, go to the Implicit Association Test (IAT) website run by Project Implicit. On their website, you’ll find several tests that examine your unconscious or implicit biases towards various groups. Complete a couple of these tests and then ponder what your results say about your own unconscious biases. After completing the tests, answer the following questions:

1. Were you surprised by your scores on the IATs? Why?
2. How do you think your own implicit biases impact how you interact with others interpersonally?
3. How can you be more mindful of your interactions with people from different groups in the future?

Personal Responsibility

Let’s face it; we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is a part of life. Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for what they feel, think, and behave. Whether we’re talking about our attitudes, our thought processes, or physical and communicative behaviors, personal responsibility is simply realizing that we are in the driver’s seat and not blaming others for our current circumstances. Now, this is not to say that there are never external factors that impede our success. Of course, there are. This is not to say that certain people have advantages in life because of a privileged background; of course, some people have. However, personal responsibility involves differentiating between those things we can control and those things that are outside of our control. For example, I may not be able to control a coworker who decides to yell at me, but I can control how I feel about that coworker, how I think about that coworker, and how I choose to respond to that coworker. Here are some ways that you can take personal responsibility in your own life (or in the workplace):

• Acknowledge that you are responsible for your choices in the workplace.
• Acknowledge that you are responsible for how you feel at work.
• Acknowledge that you are responsible for your behaviors at work.
• Accept that your choices are yours alone, so you can’t blame someone else for them.
• Accept that your sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem are yours.
• Accept that you can control your stress and feelings of burnout.
• Decide to invest in your self-improvement.
• Decide to take control of your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.
• Decide on specific professional goals and make an effort and commitment to accomplish those goals.

Although you may have the ability to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, not everyone in the workplace will do the same. Most of us will come in contact with coworkers who do not take personal responsibility. Dealing with coworkers who have a million and one excuses can be frustrating and demoralizing.

Excuse-making occurs any time an individual attempts to shift the blame for an individual’s behavior from reasons more central to the individual to sources outside of their control in the attempt to make themselves look better and more in control.8 For example, an individual may explain their tardiness to work by talking about how horrible the traffic was on the way to work instead of admitting that they slept in late and left the house late. People make excuses because they fear that revealing the truth would make them look bad or out of control. In this example, waking up late and leaving the house late is the fault of the individual, but they blame the traffic to make themselves look better and in control even though they were late.

Excuse-making happens in every facet of life, but excuse-making in the corporate world can be highly problematic. For example, research has shown that when front-line service providers engage in excuse-making, they are more likely to lose return customers as a result.9 In one study, when salespeople attempted to excuse their lack of ethical judgment by pointing to their customers’ lack of ethics, supervisors tended to punish more severely those who engaged in excuse-making than those who had not.10 Of course, even an individual’s peers can become a little annoyed (or downright disgusted) by a colleague who always has a handy excuse for their behavior. For this reason, Amy Nordrum recommends using the ERROR method when handling a situation where your behavior was problematic: Empathy, Responsibility, Reason, and Offer Reassurance.11 Here is an example Nordrum uses to illustrate the ERROR method:

I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me (Empathy). I should have thought things out better (Responsibility), but I got caught up in [reason for behavior] (Reason). Next time I’ll [preventative action] (Offer Reassurance).

As you can see, the critical parts of this response involve validating the other person, taking responsibility, and providing an explanation for how you’ll behave in the future to avoid similar problems.

Language Use

In the workplace, the type of language and how we use language are essential. In a 2016 study conducted by PayScale,12 researchers surveyed 63,924 managers. According to these managers, the top three hard skills that new college graduates lack are writing proficiency (44%), public speaking (39%), and data analysis (36%). The top three soft skills new college graduates lack are critical thinking/problem solving (60%), attention to detail (56%), and communication (46%). One of the most important factors of professionalism in today’s workplace is effective written and oral communication. From the moment someone sends in a resume with a cover letter, their language skills are being evaluated, so knowing how to use both formal language and jargon or specialized language effectively is paramount for success in the workplace.

Formal Language

Formal language is a specific writing and spoken style that adheres to strict conventions of grammar. This is in contrast to informal language, which is more common when we speak. In the workplace, there are reasons why someone would use both formal and informal language. Table 13.3 provides examples of formal and informal language choices.

Table 13.3 Formal and Informal Language Choices
Characteristic Informal Formal
Contraction I won’t be attending the meeting on Friday. I will not be attending the meeting on Friday.
Phrasal Verbs The report spelled out the need for more resources. The report illustrated the need for more resources.
Slang/Colloquialism The nosedive in our quarterly earnings came out of left field. The downturn in our quarterly earnings was unexpected.
First-Person Pronouns I considered numerous research methods before deciding to use an employee satisfaction survey. Numerous research methods were considered before deciding to use an employee satisfaction survey.
As you can see from Table 13.3, formal language is less personal and more professional in tone than informal language. Some key factors of formal language include complex sentences, use of full words, and the third person. Informal language, on the other hand, is more colloquial or common in tone; it contains simple, direct sentences; uses contractions and abbreviations, and allows for a more personal approach that includes emotional displays. For people entering the workplace, learning how to navigate both formal and informal language is very beneficial because different circumstances will call for both in the workplace. If you’re writing a major report for shareholders, then knowing how to use formal language is very important. On the other hand, if you’re a PR professional speaking on behalf of an organization, speaking to the media using formal language could make you (and your organization) look distant and disconnected, so using informal language might help in this case.
Use of Jargon and Specialized Language
Every industry is going to be filled with specialized jargon, or the specialized or technical language particular to a specific profession, occupation, or group that is either meaningless to outsiders or difficult for them to understand. For example, if I informed you that we conducted a “factor analysis with a varimax rotation,” most of your heads would immediately start to spin. However, those of us who study human communication from a quantitative or statistical perspective, we know what that phrase means because we learned it during our training in graduate school. If you walked into a hospital and heard an Emergency Department (ED) physician referring to the GOMER in bay 9, most of you would be equally perplexed. Every job has some jargon, so part of being a professional is learning the jargon within your industry and peripherally related sectors as well. For example, if you want to be a pharmaceutical sales representative, learn some of the jargon of an ED (notice they’re not called Emergency Rooms [ERs] anymore). Trust us, watching the old television show ER isn’t going to help you learn this jargon very well either.13 Instead, you have to spend time within an organization or field to pick up the necessary jargon. However, you can start this process as an undergraduate by joining student groups associated with specific fields. If you want to learn the jargon of public relations, join the Public Relations Student Society of America. If you want to go into training and development, become a student member of the Association for Talent Development. Want to go into nonprofit work, become a member of the Association for Volunteer Administration or the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. If you do not have a student chapter of one of these groups on your campus, then find a group on LinkedIn or another social networking site aimed at professionals. One of the great things about modern social networking is the ability to watch professionals engaging in professional dialogue virtually. By watching the discussions in LinkedIn groups, you can start to pick up on the major issues of a field and some of the everyday jargon.

Key Takeaways

  • All cultures have characteristics such as initiations, traditions, history, values and principles, purpose, symbols, and boundaries.
  • Cultures have distinct orientations when it comes to rules, uncertainty, time and time horizon, masculinity, directness, materialism, and power distance.
  • A profession is an occupation that involves mastery of complex knowledge and skills through prolonged training, education, or practical experience. Professionalism, on the other hand, involves the aims and behaviors that demonstrate an individual’s level of competence expected by a professional within a given profession.
  • The term ethics is defined as the judgmental attachment to whether something is good, right, or just. In our society, there have been several notable ethical lapses, including those by such companies as United Airlines, Facebook, Equifax, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Starting in fall 2017, the #MeToo movement started shining a light on a wide range of ethical issues involving the abuse of one’s power to achieve sexual desires in the entertainment industry. This movement has raised awareness and legal action against a broad range of individuals who had previously gotten away with the illegal behavior in the workplace.
  • Respecting our coworkers is one of the most essential keys to developing a positive organizational experience. There are many simple things we can do to show our respect, but one crucial feature is thinking about the types of language we use. Avoid using language that is considered biased and marginalizing.
  • Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for what they feel, think, and behave. Part of being a successful coworker is taking responsibility for your behaviors, communication, and task achievement in the workplace.
  • Formal language is specific writing and spoken style that adheres to strict conventions of grammar. Conversely, informal language is more colloquial or common in tone; it contains simple, direct sentences; uses contractions and abbreviations, and allows for a more personal approach that includes emotional displays.


4 Redding, W. C. (1996). Ethics and the study of organizational communication: When will we wake up?
In J. A. Jaksa & M. S. Pritchard (Eds.), Responsible communication: Ethical issues in business, industry, and the professions (pp.17-40). Hampton Press.
5 Lee, B. (2016). A mindful path to a compassionate cultural diversity. In. M. Chapman-Clarke (Ed.), Mindfulness in the workplace: An evidence-based approach to improving wellbeing and maximizing performance (pp. 266-287). Kogan Page.
6 Wing, D. (2010, November 17). Microaggressions in everyday life: More than just race – Can microaggressions be directed at women or gay people? Psychology Today. https://tinyurl.com/ycm6ky7n; para. 2. 7 Lee, B. (2016). A mindful path to a compassionate cultural diversity. In. M. Chapman-Clarke (Ed.), Mindfulness in the workplace: An evidence-based approach to improving wellbeing and maximizing performance (pp. 266-287). Kogan Page; pg. 283.
8 Snyder, C. R., & Higgins, R. L. (1988). Excuses: Their effective role in the negotiation of reality. Psychological Bulletin, 104(1), 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.104.1.23
9 Hill, D. J., Baer, R., & Kosenko, R. (1992). Organizational characteristics and employee excuse making: Passing the buck for failed service encounters. Advances in Consumer Research, 19, 673-678. See Also Hill, D. J., & Baer, R. (1994). Customers complain–businesses make excuses: The effects of linkage and valence. Advances in Consumer Research, 21, 399-405.
10 Bellizzi, J. A., & Norvell, D. (1991). Personal characteristics and salesperson’s justifications as moderators of supervisory discipline in cases involving unethical salesforce behavior. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 19, 11-16.
11 Nordrum, A. (2014). What’s Your Excuse? Psychology Today, 47(4), 22.
12 Payscale. (2016). 2016 Workforce-Skills Preparedness Report. Retrieved from https://www.payscale.com/ data-packages/job-skills
13 Primack, B. A., Roberts, T., Fine, M. J., Dillman Carpentier, F. R., Rice, K. R., & Barnato, A. E. (2012). ER vs. ED: A comparison of televised and real-life emergency medicine. Journal of Emergency Medicine, 43(6), 1160- 1166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jemermed.2011.11.002

14 Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23(5), 26–34.
15 Ibid.
16 Dansereau, F., Graen, G., & Haga, W. J. (1975). A vertical dyad linkage approach to leadership within formal organizations: A longitudinal investigation of the role making process. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 13(1), 46-78. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/0030-5073(75)90005-7

17 Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader- member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 219–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/1048-9843(95)90036-5
18 Lussier, R. N., & Achua, C. F. (2007). Leadership: Theory, application, skill development (3rd ed.). Thomson/ South-Western, p. 254.

19 Ibid.; p. 254.
20 Graen, G.B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1991). The transformation of professionals into self-managing and partially self-designing contributions: Toward a theory of leader-making. Journal
of Management Systems, 3(3), 33-48.



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