Understanding Unprofessional Communications

The following lines are from the course by Dr. William Brant (2017): “Professional Ethics: Critical for Today’s Engineers.”


Reflecting on what is amoral and moral to communicate is becoming more important.  Consider white male managers and women who work under them in developed countries, like the USA and Germany.  Amoral acts are those that are neither moral nor immoral (e.g., twiddling your thumbs on the elevator).  Laws and cultures are impacting what is permissible to communicate at work.  Yet, some men don’t appear to change the ways they communicate to meet our new cultural standards.  Today, it is more important to refrain from unfair and unethical communications with people to retain employment.

Ethics in professions require reflection in each professional work environment.  It’s not practical to give a general list of ways to behave in situations that occur at work.  Each work-related situation is distinctly different with different people who have distinct levels of power.

Some of the issues, with which professionals deal, are very subtle.  Racism, sexism, ageism and other “ISMsˮ may often appear subtle.  However, even the subtlest comments could haunt any of us, especially in work environments.  Some people interpret the discriminatory comments more harshly than they are meant.  This can be especially true of emails or tweets, for example.  Some people appear to ignore them, if oral, but write them down with times and dates.  Some people tend to just ignore them.  However, they might remember them and support the complaints of others.

It’s important to reflect on any of our discriminatory communications.  We communicate differently with men than women and with older people differently than with younger ones.  We talk to people differently based on their appearances.  It’s best to write down communications, discuss them, support and doubt them while holding fairness and equal treatment highly.

As the work days and work years pass by, communications and characterizations of others by race, gender, sexuality, and age can add up.  Once a threshold is reached, one last comment can certainly be the end of the person’s employment.

In 2017, a venture capitalist and board member of Uber, the transport facilitation corporation, resigned.  He claimed during a board meeting about how to handle sexism that—when there is more than one woman on the board, there’s “likely to be more talking.ˮ  Of course, some women talk more often than men, and some men talk more often than women.  The board member of Uber was likely concealing his true thoughts, trying to prevent leadership by women.  He made a sexist comment making little sense, he apologized to everyone, and resigned.

In the corporate cultures in the United States, statistics show that men tend to speak more frequently than women in such circumstances.  Also, the comment happened at the same time as other scandals at the company where during six months at least 20 people lost their jobs.  This increased the awareness of the comments while people scrutinized and searched for more vices.  It facilitated the makings of another scapegoat while Attorney General Eric Holder investigated the company with his team.


Communications and Ethics: Using Rudeness and Disagreement

Some communications are extremely insulting, but the content does not suggest that.  Many professionals are skilled at responding in seemingly polite ways but that are sarcastic.  They can point to flaws in performances, attitudes, and appearances of others.  Coping with these communications requires patience and tendencies toward inner peace, confidence, and a work-life balance.

In undergraduate and graduate courses at Texas State University for professional ethics online, I teach critical thinking about misconduct in professional work environments.  I give students ethical problems that are work-related and practical.  The students must solve problems where, for example, the manager has approved and then denied their vacation time.  The manager passive-aggressively refuses to give a reason for the rejection of the vacation time.  The manager says, “Something came up. So, we can’t give you the vacation days now.ˮ

Here is the tricky part, though.  The students are removed from the emotions involved in the actual work environment where the problems are.  Since solving the ethical problems is much easier hypothetically, one-third of my classes were given tasks as secret groups.  The students who had been active in the online classes first were chosen to be in the secret group.

A secret group in each class was given the following instructions: (1) be rude to your classmates; and (2) only argue against the others.  Moreover, they communicated with (1) and (2) to try to prevent the others from solving any of the ethical problems in the secret one-week task.

What happened because of secret group 1 acting rudely and argumentatively was a complete change in the communications of everyone.  Two-thirds of the classes (i.e., those who did not know the secret motivations) became overly polite and began agreeing excessively with the others who were neither rude nor motivated to disagree.  They also got off topic.

The sophistication levels of the communications decreased, especially in the non-secret groups.  Nobody could solve any of the ethical problems.  There was confusion about them, too.  Many of students changed their opinions about how and why they would act because of the arbitrary disagreements from their classmates.

The rudeness and disharmony in the professional work environment (i.e., the online class setting) <strong>greatly hindered their critical thinking. However, there were many communications that happened between the students outside of the class via emails and telephones.  Many of the students wrote pages of responses and erased them all because they did not want to be viewed as being rude.  Most of the students expended loads of energy and spent more time on our course than all their other classes combined, according to the students’ feedback.

Afterwards, the students were informed about the learning task regarding misconduct and about how misconduct was applied in a practical manner.  It was applied to impede their critical thinking.  Our course then involved reflections about the secret group, their motivations, the motivations of the online instructor, skills learnt during the task, and the ethics involved.  Ethical questions included the obedience of the rude students and the encouragement of rudeness by the instructor.


Communications and Ethics: Using Overpoliteness and Excessive Agreements in Communications 

After the reflections of the students, the next task was a retaliatory one.  About 75% of the students were placed into secret group 2 with the task of preventing the other 25% from completing a single problem.  The 25% were mostly students from the first secret group.

Secret group 2 was given the following instructions: (1) be overly polite; (2) only agree with the worst points that others make; (3) misspell words; and (4) write stupid comments (e.g., “My friend, Tifany, really thought the same thing you did.  It was intiresting.  I just really can’t remimber what she said, thou.ˮ… i.e., with misspellings).

Secret group 2 was instructed to just gradually increase the intensity levels of the four instructions over a two-week period.  By the end of the second week, most of the students outside of secret group 2 had no idea what was happening.  Some of the students outside of the group felt intellectually superior to the others.  They came across as arrogant know-it-alls in some cases.  However, again, no one could solve the ethical problem.

The overly polite agreements with the worst points, and lower sophistication-level communications decreased their abilities to focus on the problem.  They occupied their minds with the extremely low-level of sophistication of the others’ communications instead of problem-solving.


LEARNING OUTCOMES: Communications have profound impacts on our problem-solving abilities, especially problems that concern rights and wrongs and questions about what we would do situations. Rudeness and disagreements hinder our abilities to solve ethical problems.  Overpoliteness and unwarranted agreements also hinder our abilities to solve ethical problems.  Moreover, rudeness, politeness, and agreements and disagreements, which are both excessive, appear to negatively impact our decision-making.


The skills that improved for our classes included: (1) The skill to recognize the sophistication level of communications; (2) The skill to recognize the emotional expressiveness exhibited by others’ communications; and (3) Students became more focused on their objectives, despite the distractions from others.

(4) Students developed the skills to communicate rudely.  Communicating rudely was challenging for some during the first task, especially the professionals who were used to working with polite communications.  Some of the professionals were used to responding with politeness to the rudeness of others.  Communicating rudely can be an important skill to learn and improve.  Workers in parking services issuing tickets and their managers who handle complaints sometimes need to communicate rudely with disgruntled customers.

(5) Students developed the skills to communicate at lower levels of intelligence than their own and to recognize the strategy involved in doing so.

As professionals, you communicate with many others.  Peoples’ moods, attitudes, and situations change day-to-day based on things as simple as lacking sleep and being hungry to having relationship issues.  So, people naturally communicate in ways where they tend to be ruder or politer, i.e. having a bad day.  People have tendencies to agree more or disagree more based on their circumstances.  You need to be ready to face these challenges of communicating professionally as engineers.

Professional communications require ethical reflections.  There are certainly situations where we realize only later that we wish we had not agreed with someone.  Exhaustion, hunger, and other factors can lead us to agree or disagree more with others.  Our basic needs are motivations for our behaviors, which include sleep, food, water, excretion, sex, homeostasis etc. (Maslow, 1943).  Before our basic needs are satisfied, they have tremendous impacts on our communications with others.  Before you use the restroom, especially if you cannot wait, the expectations of others to communicate with you can be shattered.

Our needs for the security of ourselves and our families also have impacts on our communications in our professional work environments (ibid.).  It is sometimes easier for a man or woman without a family to stand up to his or her superiors.  He or she may communicate with them as equals, and demand promotions because the person has less at stake than “the family man.ˮ

For these reasons, you should realize your worth in your work environment.  Don‘t allow others to use what YOU have at stake against you.  Recognize how you are communicating with others in ethical ways that promote fairness.


QUESTIONS: How can rudeness and disagreements negatively impact us at work?  How may overly polite agreements and lower sophistication-level communications negatively impact professionals in work environments?  What are the basic needs that have great impacts on our communications?  Why do they negatively impact our communications?

There are discriminations about sexual orientations, especially against non-heterosexuals.  However, there are also discriminations about people lacking or having too much libido, being prude or promiscuous etc.  Men and women communicate in ways they may interpret as sexual harrassment.  Men are often placed in the unique positions of being assumed to be the potential “victimizers,ˮ although men can be victims as well.

One man I know faced many obstacles at work after he refused to have sex in a copy room with one of his female superiors at a German television station.  Some unprofessional behaviors are challenging to avoid.  By trying to collaborate and refraining from denying what the other person wants, it is also possible to let the person know that such behaviors are better-suited outside of work.  Passions are likely to diminish as time passes.

The students were told toward the middle of the second week to only misspell the longer words and to misspell the names of their classmates (e.g., Jared became Jar, Catherine became Kathryn), and students were told that they should try to get the other students completely off the topic and to “feed their egosˮ by complimenting them on their comments, especially the ones that were less relevant to potential solutions to the problem they should have worked on instead.

This was an important skill to learn that some of the older professionals had experienced from others.  Some people really do not focus their attention on communicating with some other people well.  They may just read a few words of each of your emails to them.  They may respond with blatant misspellings, irrelevant responses, wrong answers, and communications of lower level intelligence.  However, the person who seems unintelligent can shockingly display his or her intelligence.  These displays can be detrimental to you and advantageous for him or her in the professional work environment.

To replicate this in our online class setting, at the end of the retaliation task, secret group 2 had solved the answers to the problem that the others did not come close to solving.  Secret group 2 then submitted short essays at greater sophistication levels than any of the comments within the forums.  This caused a panic and confusion about the duties for the class in the other students.  Of course, they had failed to pay attention to the problem.  They didn’t understand why the others had been able to pay attention to it so well.  The agreements and overpoliteness of the others interfered with their abilties to focus on a single problem.



Maslow, A.  (1943).  “A Theory of Human Motivation.”  Psychological Review. 50: 370-396.



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