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April 28, 1995
Dr. Mark Alfino
Gonzaga University

The Information Ethics of Polite Culture

Ethicists don't discuss etiquette very much, in part because it has always seemed too close to the surface of social interaction and too ephemeral or conventional for theory. But I suspect that most people, even philosophers, would agree that social etiquette often reinforces and complements our ethical intuitions. For example, in social etiquette we draw a line between reasonable and normal questions to ask others and questions which pry, invade privacy, or otherwise embarrass them. A natural justification of this practice is that it conserves personal autonomy by helping people control information about themselves and decide for themselves how and when to disclose information. Many of the practices of "polite culture" serve similar, if less profound, purposes.

Though social etiquette mostly promotes benign ethical values, it sometimes does the opposite. In these cases, we should rethink some of our otherwise laudable courtesies. In order to investigate this issue in connection with the workplace, we should first distinguish social etiquette from professional etiquette. The former concerns the courtesies and polite accommodations we ought to make to each other as a consequence of our general needs and values as persons. The latter concern both general conventions for professional interaction, and role-specific norms for accomplishing work through a division of labor which defines the profession. For example, the professional etiquette between a doctor and a nurse should follow, ideally, from the way that the job of taking care of a patient is divided between them. Professional etiquette also reinforces the power and status associated with the hierarchically defined roles that are a feature of most professional transactions.(1)

To make matters more concrete, consider some of the following norms: Social etiquette dictates that we reply to phone messages and inquiries which are personal (as opposed to mass commercial mailings and solicitations), but professional etiquette allows individuals with different roles in an organization to observe different norms about the manner and promptness of the reply. Generally higher professional status confers a power to exercise greater leeway in structuring communication. The switchboard operator must answer immediately, but the CEO is allowed (and expected) to collect and prioritize responses. The manager may ask for some business to be transacted in writing, and may enjoy more latitude in deciding whether to interrupt a personal conference to answer a ringing phone.

How could these useful conventions of polite culture ever do moral harm in the workplace? I will focus on two ways in which they can that relate to information ethics: first, by preventing the exchange of information which would prevent harm or promote a moral good; second, by allowing distorted communication to seem acceptable. I suspect there are many other ways in which the polite culture of work does moral harm, but these two will illustrate the thesis.(2)

Professional etiquette often intentionally discourages communication of some message in the interests of efficiency. Since managers and supervisors are often in a "one to many" relationship with workers, efficiency sometimes requires that the manager enjoy wider latitude to convey messages to workers than vice versa, since otherwise the manager might be overloaded with information. Unfortunately this sometimes limits reciprocal or upward appraisal, and denies managers opportunities for growth even as it forces workers to internalize complaints or suggestions. Blocked communication can increase alienation and decrease quality and pride in work. Professional etiquette is not always the culprit, but workers often internalize a self-defeating protocol for deciding what to "bother" the boss with.

The more common moral failing that our professional etiquette opens us up to is the encouragement of distorted communication. Consider the following example: a senior colleague is responsible for advising new students to a department's graduate program on their course selections. It is widely known among the junior faculty that his advise is inaccurate and unhelpful, and that he often uses the presumption of authority that comes with the position to steer students toward a particular course of study. To make the case harder, suppose also that the graduate advisor reports to no one (or to other faculty with equally bad information) and that subtle hints about the poor quality of his information do not shake his confidence in the wisdom of the practice. Most people would admit that professional peers have an obligation to intervene in such a case, but the professional etiquette of polite work culture works against this because the distorted communication is protected by the worker's seniority. The norms of polite work culture sometimes tell us that it is "not our place" to intervene, even though our professional obligations say otherwise. In this case, blocked communication about the senior colleague's advising will lead to distorted communication in discussions of the quality of the academic program, as well as in discussions with students. It is "unprofessional," after all, to air some complaints to student clients.

A similar kind of distorted communication often occurs between workers of different rank when, for example, an executive is verbally rude or abusive to a secretary or other subordinate. One might be tempted to say that this is a case in which the absence of professional etiquette is causing the problem, and certainly this is partially true. But notice that the professional etiquette of superior and subordinate relationships gives different power to each party to complain about lapses in etiquette. You can observe a similar imbalance in the etiquette that governs relationships between clerks and customers. In many cases, custom gives customers more leeway to snub and deal curtly with clerks than vice versa.(3)

None of these examples is meant to suggest that we should not advocate a polite work culture, or that we should stop looking to professional courtesy and codes of professional behavior for ways to humanize work. But we should be suspicious of norms that protect workers from feedback and helpful criticism. We should also recognize that codes of conduct about who can say what to whom need to be founded less upon hierarchies of power than upon the flow of information native to the work situation. With changes in the availability of information, more and more workers are finding that they have access to better information than their bosses, yet the conventions of polite work culture block and distort the communication of that information.

Blocked and distorted communication also come about because a specific kind of status or privilege gets attached to job. For example, organizations often let higher status workers conduct more self-evaluation, but this privilege can be expressed in forms of professional etiquette which isolate workers from important information about their performance. The result is often decreased effectiveness and a work culture which, in the name of "professionalism," ironically tolerates rude and unprofessional behavior.


1. Even very "egalitarian" sounding work relationships, such as "collegial" or "co-worker" relationships can have this hierarchical dimension, even if it is only a consequence of seniority.

2. I am presently collecting anecdotal material for a book on information ethics at work and would appreciate receiving work stories which raise information ethics issues. Anonymity will, of course, be assured.

3. There are some curious exceptions to this such as when a local culture supports a distinctive style of service, such as the code of conduct for many wait persons in New York restaurants.