Avoiding Unethical Situations At Work

Below is a guest post from Vice President of Advocacy Janelle Huelsman.

In the most recent PRSSA blog post, Nick Lucido writes about a recent ethics scandal involving a public relations firm that allegedly used its interns to post positive reviews on the iTunes app store for its clients. As Nick mentions in the post, the practices described are called astroturfing and violate PRSA’s Code of Ethics. What the Techcrunch article did not address was how public relations professionals-in-training, like the firm’s interns, avoid and handle ethics problems. If you find yourself in an ethical dilemma at the workplace, remember the following:

Know the PRSA Code of Ethics — Consider the code your the encyclopedia of everything ethical in public relations. You should hold yourself and other professionals with whom you work to its standards, and if a colleague asks you to do something that violates the code, remember that it requires professionals to “Counsel subordinates in proper ethical decision making” and to “Require that subordinates adhere to the ethical requirements of the Code.”

Ask questions — Although it might be intimidating, an internship is the perfect time to question a task your supervisor has assigned you. If you don’t understand the assignment or think it might violate the PRSA Code of Ethics, you should let your colleagues know. You might have caught an honest mistake, or they might be able to explain how the task is in line with the code.

Counsel with a mentor — Feel uncomfortable questioning your boss? Ask another public relations professional you respect. Chances are he or she has been in a similar situation.

Remember that it is okay to say “no” — If you review the situation closely and still feel you have been asked to perform unethically, ask for a new assignment. Explain to your colleagues why you think the task is unethical and that you would not be able to complete it. Remember that internships are your first steps toward becoming a professional, and you should not jeopardize your reputation for anyone.

What other tips do you have for interns to learn about ethical behavior? Any tips on how to avoid these situations in the workplace?

5 thoughts on “Avoiding Unethical Situations At Work

    • Author gravatar

      Ethical bosses are not going to ask you to compromise your standards in the first place. In very rare instances there are items that are overlooked, however that is the exception not the rule. I absolutely agree with being principled, however if you ask your boss to be reassigned, the reality is that you do need to be prepared for an immediate departure or one in the near future from that organization. Bosses do not like their authority questioned, especially from an intern. I am not saying that it will cost you your job/internship, what I am saying is that you need to be prepared for a negative impact on your review or your job. Welcome to the world of PR and marketing. Take it as a life lesson. Some companies and bosses are so incredible that you want to work only for organizations of that caliber and only for bosses with integrity… the flip side is that you can learn what kind of professional you do NOT want to become by observing behavior unbecoming to a leader and remind yourself that you never want to be like that.

    • Author gravatar

      When I was an intern I was asked to do something similar. I kindly explained the world of new media and social media to my superiours and explained that I did not feel comfortable “lying.” They joked that maybe PR wasn’t for me if I wasn’t a good liar. I completed my internship and was asked to stay on full-time. They were happy with my work product and didn’t ask me to do it again. I no longer work there but my experience helped me to become who I am today.

    • Author gravatar

      Janelle’s counsel is spot on. There is never a reason to compromise professional ethics. You can’t take back unethical behavior, and it lives with you for the balance of your career and life. The PRSA Code of Ethics is not only useful; it’s also portable and pretty. I’d suggest posting the Code at your desk or displaying it for easy reference.

    • Author gravatar

      Being a young intern at a company I can see where it would be a difficult to say no in a situation like this. Often you aim to please at this level because you are just starting out and are at the bottom of the pole. The problem with being in this position is if you do agree to unethical behavior it could follow you forever, and you will end up struggling more than you did before when just trying to get your foot in the door. I have never been put in a position where I was asked to do something unethical, but something similar. My manager and owner wanted me and a a few of my co-workers to to a promotion campaign at a local bar in my town. I knew the bar and its reputation and was not comfortable being at this location, and I was underage. When I told my manager this she understood, and thanked me for my honesty. She even asked me more about the bar and my opinion because she had no idea being older and from outside my town. So, stand up for how you feel. It might turn out for the better, and help your company realize its flaws. If it has a negative impact on you, you probably should find work place. It will benefit you in the long run.

    • Author gravatar

      Janelle, your post is spot on. I counsel my students to understand their ethical parameters and be ready to stand by them, because it’s not a matter of if they will be asked to do something unethical, it’s a matter of when. At the end of the day, all we have as PR professionals, and as people who can look at themselves in the mirror, are our reputations, our credibility and our values. Any organization worth working for will understand and respect your boundaries; if it doesn’t, then you know it’s time to move on.

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