April: Ethics Column

Use questions to open the conversation

Ever hear something like this at work?

  • Do what it takes!
  • It’s no big deal. Everybody does it.
  • C’mon, just do it. No one will ever know.
  • It’s OK, because it’s legal.
  • There is no other way. We have no other choice.
  • Just do what I say and follow the orders.


Chances are, if you hear words like this on the job, you may be on the verge of an ethical violation, according to PRSA.

When it comes to determining what is ethical, trust PRSA, your experience, and your intuition to help you choose the right path.

If you’re hearing phrases that make you feel like you’re forced or bullied into doing something that’s unethical, consider your options.

Don’t give in to peer pressure because someone claims that everyone’s doing it. Stand up and speak up for your values and those of PRSA.

If someone is trying to force you into doing something you feel or know is unethical, let the person know that from a professional ethics standpoint, that’s something you simply cannot do and why.

Or, if it’s borderline on the verge of an ethical concern, try to open the conversation and find common ground through an alternative. Ask questions to help understand why the other person feels as they do, and why they’re asking you to go about something in a certain way. Consider your options and professionally present alternatives. For example, “Can you help me understand why you feel this way?” or, “Why you feel so strongly about this position?” or, “That’s one option. What is it that we’re ultimately trying to achieve?” or, “What problem are we trying to solve? Let’s first look at that, and then develop a plan to leverage the strengths of our team to help achieve that goal.”

Use questions to help open the conversation and explore the possibilities, especially if you know or believe what is being proposed isn’t honest, trustworthy or right.

Or, here’s another option, "We all want to succeed and to go about it in a professional manner. The fact is, what you’re asking me to do is something that conflicts with our Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics because it …” (Explain your point.) “Rather than that approach, let’s try this instead …” (Share your alternative proposal that is within the PRSA Code of Ethics.)

Choose your own words and questions that fit your style and the context of the situation, but don’t clam up when it comes to upholding your ethics.

In times of stress or conflict, it’s human nature for some people to go silent and keep their ideas to themselves. However, open communication is key to achieving greater understanding. Perhaps the other person isn’t aware of the PRSA Code of Ethics, let alone that what they’ve asked you to do is in violation of them. In that case, educate them on ethics you’ve pledged to uphold as a member of PRSA.

If you’re unsure of what another person said, or you want to make sure you’re crystal clear on what you thought you heard, try restating to make sure you interpreted the other person’s view correctly.

Sometimes in stressful situations, our hearing becomes selective. That’s why it’s important to state and restate what you heard and others have said. For example ask, “What I heard you say was … is that correct?” You may also ask, “When I hear that, it makes me wonder why you feel that way, or if you have considered other viewpoints? Maybe you don’t realize that isn’t considered an ethical approach by PRSA. That’s why I’m wondering if we could instead try… How does that sound to you?”

Keeping the dialogue open and ongoing is a way to help achieve better understanding and outcomes. Try incorporating questions into your conversations and state and restate to help work toward achieving solutions.

As a PRSA member, you’ve agreed to conduct yourself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.

Trust your intuition, and the PRSA Code of Ethics. If something doesn’t seem or feel right to you, it probably isn’t. Stand your ground. State your case. Provide your facts and alternative solutions to help others understand what’s acceptable from your standpoint as a PRSA member.

If you’re wondering where PRSA draws the line when it comes to ethics, visit PRSA.org/ethics.

Submitted by Kathy Krafka-Harkema, APR, Ethics Chair

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