Q9 Who is responsible for unethical communication, the person sharing the information or the source of origination?

1 have heard on countless occasions, “He asked me to do something. So, I did what I was told” and “I was just following a directive.” It happens all the time. Does this make the person who follows through with the poor judgment responsible? It really depends on a few factors. Experience plays a part in the process, especially if the employee is new to the company or has just entered the workforce.

Grabbing the intern or first year entry-level employee who has very little business or real-world PR and marketing experience and asking them to do something that you know is wrong is troublesome on many fronts. Here are two reasons to consider.

First, the intern is not familiar with the normal process of communication or the business. Having insights into formal protocol is not something that is or should be expected. It is only through experience that new professionals are able to make an ethical choice because they have an understanding or can contrast what is the right way to proceed and what might be unethical steps.

Unfortunately, everyone involved in a questionable incident or misleading communication distributed by a company faces the consequences. And, yes, there are always consequences. The difference here is that acting with malicious intent is different than not having the experience to know you are actually getting wrapped up in these harmful actions.

Second, interns or young professionals are not prepared to “speak truth to power” because they are at a lower, more vulnerable level and they feel their position will “be on the line.” They are not skilled at an approach that allows them to question or present information that is contrary to what the executive or manager expects. Being able to open a conversation with “I have some new or different insights for you, so please keep an open mind as this may change the course of our communication approach and the impact you were looking to achieve,” is highly unlikely.

One of my earlier career experiences falls into the “She asked me do something, so I did it,” category. I shared a story in my book, Answers for Modern Communicators, about speaking truth to power. At the time, I was a young professional and was not able to rise to the occasion. My Vice President (VP) asked me to deliver a letter directly to a client by hand. As I was leaving to hand-deliver the envelope, my direct supervisor told me I did not have to personally deliver anything and because the envelope was addressed, I could stick it in the mail with the proper postage.9

My supervisor told me that I was needed at the office and that everyone agreed this was the best approach. So, 1 took the elevator to the lobby and stuck the envelope in the mail slot. As I turned around, there was my VP, quite upset that I had not followed her directive.

Speaking truth to power would have meant me standing up to my supervisor and saying, “I’m happy to help here. However, I’ll be mentioning to our VP the change in plans.” Or, getting both parties in the room together to let them decide the right course of action would have also been a good option here.

Ultimately, I played a part in a potentially damaging situation when a letter was not hand delivered to the client in a timely fashion. I was responsible, yet my inexperience was not held against me. In fact, it taught me to ask more questions and to always make sure everyone was on the same page when important decisions about client communication needed to be made.

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