Six Forms of Unethical Communication

By Kelly Tabbutt

In communications, we talk a lot about the ways we choose to say things. Ethics is a big part of communications. Have you ever encountered unethical communications? Keep reading to learn more about different types of unethical communications to avoid.

photo of rotary phones
Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

Communication should clarify and inform people, rather than confuse or mislead them.

What is unethical communication?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “unethical” as “not conforming to a high moral standard; morally wrong; immoral.” In relation to communication, some schools of thought view unethical communication as anything that promotes misinformation, intolerance, or slander. 

screenshot of merriam-webster dictionary's entry for the word "unethical"
Merriam-Webster‘s definition of “unethical.”

Unethical behavior in communication can also include actions which go against policy or standards such as committing plagiarism. Further, unethical communication can be any public communication which hinders civil or political rights, such as the freedoms of speech or religion. 

As the writer, it is your responsibility to foresee and safeguard against unethical communication. The first step is understanding the types of unethical communication. Six main types of unethical communication were characterized by W.C. Redding, who is known as the father of organizational communication.

Six Types of Unethical Communication

Redding became concerned about the ethics of communication in organizations. In 1996, he published an article calling for greater ethics in organizational communication. He also described six types of unethical communications that organizations should avoid. Below, we will review Redding’s six categories of unethical communications, considering ways they can be applied in public communications such as journalism, lectures, or blogging. 

Destructive

Destructive communications attack an individual, organization, or group using derogatory, insensitive, or inflammatory language. These types of unethical statements communicate character assassinations, prejudicial language, or slander. Destructive communication includes abusive language and use of information to discredit. It is aggressive, harassing, and degrading.

Examples of destructive unethical communications include unwarranted attacks, vicious criticisms, or unethical use of harmful information. These come in the form of prejudice against individuals or groups or exposing harmful confidential information to slander a person, group, or organization. Unethical communications can also include disparaging subtext, implication, or innuendo.

Coercive

Coercive communications abuse power to threaten or stifle others. Coercion can be communicated through implications, double binds or dead ends, or exclusion and silencing. Coercive communications involve the abuse of one’s position of authority or power to obtain goals by disempowering others from dissent. It is threatening, tyrannical, and stifling.

Examples of coercive communications include threats or implications of firing or defunding, exclusion of people or groups from important discussions or events. It also includes sending contradictory messages or creating no-win or dead-end situations. Coercive communicators use their position to achieve their goals by intimidating, excluding, or inhibiting others. 

Manipulative-Exploitative

Manipulative-exploitative communications refer to those communications which manipulate and/or exploit the audience’s ignorance, prejudice, or fears around a topic to conceal important information and affect audience opinions or actions to align with the writer’s. Manipulative-exploitative language is condescending, misleading, and psycho-emotionally manipulative.

Examples of manipulative-exploitative language include making one-sided arguments against a person, group, or organization that paints the arguer as a threat. It could also include messaging that incites people or groups based upon cherry-picked information or misrepresentation. Manipulative-exploitative language is often fear-mongering and could compel hostility against valid rebuttals.

Deceptive

Deceptive communications is another form of unethical communication characterized by misleading others. While manipulation involves withholding information to incite affects, deception involves concealing unflattering or immoral behavior to diminish affects. Deceptive communication is distorting, rose-colored, and evasive.

Examples of deceptive communications include those that cover up indiscretions by leaving out key information or selectively presenting only favorable information. It also includes language which makes bogus promises or claims. As well as communication that is ambiguous or euphemistic. Deceptive language uses half-truths to paint an unwarrantedly flattering picture. 

Secretive

Secretive communications remain silent or unresponsive on important topics. Secretive communications attempt to “sweep” indiscretions “under the rug,” either by omitting key information or refusing to discuss the topic. It is a sort of power play in which the author veils or buries important information. It is obscuring, omissive, and excluding of public input. 

Examples of secretive communication include leaving out key information around or examples of indiscretion or improper conduct (whether one’s own or others). It also includes refusing to respond to important questions — staying silent — around one’s own conduct or a significant topic. Secretive communication takes deception a step further, evading topics altogether.

Intrusive

Intrusive communication is essentially communication that invades one’s privacy to the point of denying them a right to legally protected or reasonably expected privacy. Essentially, intrusive communications pry or share information obtained by prying — without consent — into the private lives of individuals or organizations. It is invasive, exposing, and often sensationalizing.

Intrusive communication involves seeking or spreading private information without consent. A classic example of intrusive communication would be paparazzi images or interviews. Other, more mundane examples include sharing information that was gained through illegal or immoral means, such as recording or taking pictures without the subject’s knowledge or without their consent to share.

The Importance of Ethical Communication

The key to avoiding unethical communication is to understand the types of unethical communication and why they are unethical. Keep in mind, also, that unethical communication is not just about the writer’s intent. It includes unintentional breaches of moral standards. Whether communication is determined to be unethical also depends on how the audience perceives it, regardless of the author’s intention.

Communication should shed light, not shroud. Ethical communication seeks and shares truth — full truth, presented, if not unbiased, then at least balanced. Unethical communication sows seeds of ignorance or prejudices, exploits the audience through misinformation, silences the audience or remains silent on important and relevant matters.

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