Ethics in Technical Communication
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A version of this case first appeared in Ethics in Technical Communication: A Critique and Synthesis (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001), by Mike Markel.
Denise McNeil Voices Her Concerns:
Playing the Name Game1
Background: Crescent Energy, an oil-refining corporation based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has issued a request for proposals for constructing an intranet that will link its headquarters with its three facilities in the United States and Europe. McNeil Informatics, a networking consulting company, is considering responding with a proposal. Most of the work will be performed at Crescent’s headquarters in Riyadh.
Crescent Energy was established 40 years ago by family members who are related by marriage to the Saudi royal family. At the company headquarters, the support staff and clerical staff include women, most of whom are related to the owners of the company. The professional, managerial, and executive staff is all male, which is traditional in Saudi corporations. Crescent is a large company, with revenues in the billions of dollars.
McNeil Informatics is a small firm (12 employees) established two years ago by Denise McNeil, a 29year-old computer scientist with a master’s degree in computer engineering. She divides her time between working on her MBA and getting her company off the ground. As a result, the company is struggling financially, and she realizes that it must get the Crescent contract to meet its current financial obligations. Her employees include both men and women at all levels. The chief financial officer is a woman, as are several of the professional staff. The technical writer is a man.
Denise traveled to New York from her headquarters in Pittsburgh to attend a briefing by Crescent. All the representatives from Crescent were middle-aged Saudi men; Denise was the only woman among the representatives of the seven companies that attended the briefing. When Denise shook hands with Mr. Fayed, the team leader, he smiled slightly as he mentioned that he did not realize that McNeil Informatics was run by a woman. Denise did not know what to make of his comment, but she got a strong impression that the Crescent representatives felt uncomfortable in her presence. During the break, they drifted off to speak with the men from the other six vendors, leaving Denise to stand awkwardly by herself.
Once back in her hotel room, Denise was still bothered by the Crescent representatives’ behavior at the meeting. She thought about the possibility of gender discrimination but decided to bid for the project anyway, because she believed that her company could write a persuasive proposal. McNeil Informatics had done several projects of this type in the past year.
1 A version of this case first appeared in Ethics in Technical Communication: A Critique and Synthesis (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001), by Mike Markel.
Denise McNeil Voices Her Concerns:
Denise phoned Josh Lipton, the technical writer, to get him started on the proposal. “When you put in the boilerplate about the company, I’d like you to delete the stuff about my founding the company. Don’t say that a woman is the president, okay? And when you assemble the résumés of the project team, I’d like you to use just the first initials, not the first names.”
“I don’t understand, Denise. What’s going on?” Josh asked.
“Well, Crescent looks like an all-male club, very traditional. I’m not sure they would want to hire us if they knew we have a lot of women at the top.”
“You know, Denise, there’s another problem.”
“I’m thinking of the lead engineer we used in the other networking projects this year.”
“Mark Steinberg,” she said, sighing. “Do you think this will be a problem?”
“I don’t know,” Josh said. “I guess we could use another person. Or kind of change his name on the résumé.”
“Before we commit more resources to this project, we need to find out if Crescent would act prejudicially. We need more information. Do you have any ideas?”
“Let me think about this a little bit. I’ll e-mail you tomorrow morning.”
After hanging up with Josh, Denise decided to phone her mentor, Jane Adams. Denise explained what had happened at the meeting with the Crescent representatives and asked, “If I conceal the gender and ethnicity of my employees and never mention I am the company’s founder, am I condoning the same types of prejudice that led me to start my own company in the first place, or am I just being a practical businesswoman?”
Jane avoided responding immediately to Denise’s question and instead asked for more information: “Besides what happened today, do you have any other evidence that suggests Crescent won’t do business with you if you disclose such information in your proposal?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ve asked one of my employees to come up with a research plan. But what if we find out they do business only within the Saudi version of the good-old-boy network?”
“What if you find no signs of anti-women or ethnic prejudices?” Jane countered.
After a long pause, Denise said, “Either way, I’m not sure what to do.”
- What should Denise do about the fact that the person she wishes to designate as the principal investigator has an ethnic last name that might elicit a prejudiced reaction from Crescent Energy officials? Should she assign someone other than Mark Steinberg to run the project? Should she tailor his name to disguise his ethnicity? To address this issue, you will need to conduct research regarding the official business stance of Saudis to Jews. Is there a difference in Saudi business attitude to Jews from Israel and to Jews from elsewhere?
- Is Denise’s decision to disguise the sex of her employees and to cover up her own role in founding her company justified by common sense, or is it giving in to what she perceives as prejudice? Research the role of non-Saudi women in business today in Saudi Arabia.
- If you were Denise’s mentor, what advice would you give her regarding the above two issues? articulated issues in depth:
Respond in a 500-word memo to your instructor. Please ensure that you address the above-
Reference – as applicable – the language and principles of ethics: Rights, Justice, Utility, and Care (see Chapter 2, pp. 18 – 19 in Practical Strategies) Reference the concept of the Moral Minimum (see Chapter 2, pp. 29 & 32. Also appended below) Conduct research regarding the Saudi culture and Saudi business ethics in order to present a well-informed argument
Moral Minimum: Communicating with Cultures with Different Ethical Beliefs
Companies face special challenges when they market their products and services to people in other countries and to people in their home countries who come from other cultures. Companies need to decide how to deal with situations in which the target culture’s ethical beliefs clash with those of their own culture. For instance, in many countries sexual discrimination makes it difficult for women to assume positions of responsibility in the workplace. If a U.S. company that sells computers, for example, wishes to present product information in such a country, should it reinforce this discrimination by excluding women from photographs of its products? Ethicist Thomas Donaldson (1991) argues that doing so is wrong. Under the principle he calls the moral minimum, companies are ethically obligated not to reinforce patterns of discrimination in product information.
However, Donaldson argues, companies are not obligated to challenge the prevailing prejudice directly. A company is not obligated to include photographs that show women performing roles they do not normally perform within that culture, nor is it obligated to portray women wearing clothing, makeup, or jewelry that is likely to offend local standards. But there is nothing to prevent an organization from adopting a more activist stance. Organizations that actively oppose discrimination are acting admirably.
(Source: Markel’s Practical Strategies 2nd Edition, p. 29)
Following Memo Instruction:
- Memo as level 1 heading (not “Interoffice Communication)
- Purpose statement
- Summary (because your memo will be longer than one page)
- Discussion (you will need to have sub-headings in this section)