Podcast: How to be an ethical internal communicator

What does it mean to be an ethical internal communicator?

What resources exist to support Internal Comms professionals in making ethical decisions?

This episode of my Candid Comms podcast will help you think through ethical situations and equip you with ideas and advice.

Candid Comms how to be an ethical internal communicator

 

About Candid Comms

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

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Resources I’ve referenced in this episode

Transcript of this week’s episode

You’re listening to the Candid Comms Podcast with Rachel Miller. Tune in for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related. Hello and welcome to this show. Today’s episode is focused on how to be an ethical internal communicator. And as ever, you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. Are you ready? Grab a notebook for this one. Let’s get started.

What does working ethically mean to you? Recently the Institute of Internal Communication produced a guide to ethical practice and they created it, they say, to further support the professional standards of internal communication by focusing on our ethical practise, setting out the principles and given advice for making ethical decisions.

Ethical values provide the moral compass by which we practise and help organisations make decisions as internal communicators.

They act as a foundation upon which professionalism and ethical practise is promoted. These words are from the Institute of Internal Communication, and I couldn’t agree more. Ethical principles and practises are super important for me and for my team are All Things IC. We are all members of the Institute of Internal Communication, and as such, we are bound by their code of conduct, which also incorporates these ethical principles. We’re also members, all the comms consultants are members, of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, CIPR, who have their own code of conduct too, and ethical principles and practises are embedded within that too.

Ethical practise is something that we talk about a lot at All Things IC, and we’ve featured ethics a number of times over on the blog, AllThingsIC.com/blog. But today I really want to focus on what we need to know, what we need to do and what we need to think about when it comes to working ethically as internal communicators. I wonder whether you’ve been in ethical situations inside your organisation where you’ve been asked to do something that really jars with you, which doesn’t sit very well with you. I think something to be aware of and something to know is that you can say no. I’ve been in various situations throughout my internal comms career where I’ve been put under pressure to do the wrong thing.

And I’m going to be very honest with you in this episode, I’ve been in this situation both when I was in-house, and particularly now working as a consultant. We regularly have conversations about what is the right thing to do, what is the ethical thing to do? The guidance from the Institute of Internal Communication is really helpful because it gives you a framework to help you make decisions. I’ve used the CIPR Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ ethical decision tree for a number of years and I’ll include a link to it in the show notes. Essentially it’s a decision tree and it asks you questions to help you know what decision to make. And if you are a member of the CIPR, they actually have a helpline that you can call and I’ve called it a number of times to ask for help, confidentially, to get some advice and guidance to help me make decisions.

The decision tree is pretty straightforward actually. It asks you questions like, “Define the ethical issue. Will it break any law or regulation in the relevant jurisdictions? Will it breach the CIPR code of conduct? Could it damage your reputation? Can you talk openly to your colleagues or your managers?” And then you can make recommendations, so you can come up with a decision about what you’re going to do, and it guides you all the way through. So questions like, “Have managers accepted your proposed course of action? Do you have the power to say no?” for example. So pretty straightforward, but a really useful prompt and aid memoir to have to hand to help you think about how can I make the right decision, particularly if you’re being put under pressure. Every single ethical situation that I’ve been in has been when people are putting pressure on you to make a choice or do something or say something.

CIPR Ethics Decision Tree

I’ll include a link to the decision tree in the show notes because I think it’s really, really helpful. I hope you find it super useful too. I think something to know is that you are not alone. If you are facing situations where you’re being called upon to act in a manner that makes you call things into question, you’re not alone in that and there are advice and guidance and resources out there to help you. Let me give you an example of what I mean by an ethical situation.

The one that springs to mind, and this is something that I called upon when I was going for chartered PR practitioner status back in 2017, where through the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, I did their assessment to become a chartered PR. And part of that framework is talking about ethical practise. It goes absolutely hand in glove with being a PR practitioner, is working in an ethical and sensitive way.

So the example that I use when I was asked, “Can you talk about an ethical situation that you faced and what you did in that scenario?” was when I was doing an audit many years ago for an organisation, and is when I was working as a consultant here are All Things IC. Whenever I’m auditing an organisation, confidentiality is so important to me and to the clients and to employees, because the mindset for me when auditing an organisation is not a focus on who said what but what’s been said. And that’s the mindset for me. That’s how I approach an audit. Whether we are doing focus groups or one-to-one interviews, whatever it might be, when you’re inviting people to be open, to be vulnerable, to have discussions with you, the focus has to be on what’s been said rather than pointing fingers and who said what.

So that’s the condition for me in doing an audit. When we are setting out the store from a comms team to the rest of their organisation to say, “We are going to do an internal communication audit. We’ve invited the team at All Things IC in to conduct this audit for us. This is a confidential audit. This means you can come along to our focus groups or you can answer questions and we won’t attribute your name to your comments.” That’s really important. Sometimes you have situations where you are reporting back feedback from certain departments, or certain regions, or certain countries, or certain brands or product lines, and that’s entirely appropriate. So you might attribute comments to a country or a region or maybe even a team, but rarely will you single people out, unless you’ve already had that discussion. Maybe it’s an interview with your CEO for example, and therefore they know that the comments will be attributed personally to them because you have that discussion upfront, you restate your intentions at the start of that conversation.

So a few years back I’d conducted an internal comms audit and I had a consultant in to help me do that as well as an associate model. We worked together and we did an audit and then we were playing back the findings, their feedback, our recommendations to the client and we were sharing all the things that we thought we’d uncovered, that we thought were useful to help them understand how internal communication did and didn’t happen inside their organisation so they could plan really, really well and be well informed for the future. And we’d been running focus groups throughout this whole audit process. So to audit means to listen, to hear, which is a great mindset to be in when you’re conducting an audit. So we’d been listening to their colleagues, listening to their employees via focus groups and one-to-one interviews. And there was one particular comment where the client’s stakeholder from HR was in the room.

So we had the HR representative and we had the comms team, and we were presenting back the findings to this group. And the HR representative really put us under pressure to say, “You need to tell me who said this particular comment.” Because we had a comment in our audit report, but it didn’t have a name attached to it because we’d set up the conditions of that whole audit were that it was confidential. “Feel free to have your say. Feel free to tell us how you feel. We won’t attribute who said what. The focus is what was said.” And in that moment we were being asked who said what. And it was awkward actually. It was a really awkward situation and I stood my ground and said, “No.”

I said, “That’s not how we’ve set up this whole audit. We would break the trust from your colleagues. If I then told you who said what particular comment, then that breaks not only the code of conduct for me, as a CIPR member, and particularly now with IoIC now they’ve got this ethical guidance all these years later. I can’t because I abide by this code. It’s important to me and it will break the trust it. It undoes all the hard work that we’ve been doing throughout this audit to make your employees feel comfortable enough to share their views.” So I refused, and it was incredibly awkward and this HR representative stormed out of the room and she slammed the door and it was awkward. It was a really, really awkward moment where I remember thinking, “Should I tell her? She clearly isn’t going to let this drop. Should I tell her?” But my gut instinct was for all the reasons I’ve just outlined, “No, I’m going to have to stick with this. This is absolutely ethically, morally the right thing to do.

So a short time later, she came back in with a coffee in her hand and put it on the table and said, “I’m going to give you one more chance to tell me who said it.” And I said, “I’m going to have to disappoint you. I am not going to tell you who said it.” And it was really, really awkward, but, comms friends, that was the right thing to do. Telling her that person’s name would’ve undone so much and it would damage the integrity of months of work just for that one comment. So if you find yourself in an ethical situation where you’re being asked to do something which you know isn’t right, it is so important to stand up for yourself and to say no. And I explained to her all the reasons why that I was saying no. She didn’t like it, but I would not budge.

I encourage you to ask for help. If you are in a situation like that, do seek out the Institute of Internal Communication or CIPR to have a look at what they offer you. If you’re a member of these two bodies, have a look at how they support the professional members and certain other membership bodies around the world, IABC and PRSA and the like. I’m sure that other organisations will have something similar for their members. And if they don’t, it’s probably worth a conversation to ask them.

Let’s look at what we need to do. And I’m going to dive into the IoIC Ethics Guide and pull out a few things in there that I think are really helpful for internal communicators to do. I’m going to share the definition of ethics from the IoIC Ethics Guide with you. “Good ethical communication is about ensuring all communication within the organisation is truthful, fair, and demonstrates respect.” I love that. I love that for its simplicity, because when you are looking at ethical communication, those lenses to look through are really clear. Is our communication truthful? Is it fair and does it demonstrate respect?

Think about your own organisation. Do you know that all communication is truthful, fair and demonstrates respect? Where are the gaps? Looking at the guide, the principles within it are really, really helpful for us as practitioners. There’s a whole table in there and it talks about principles to be adhered to, and then principles to be adhered to wherever possible. So the ones to adhere to are things like content. Some of the examples, just to pull out of that, are, “Communication is to be honest and accurate. Misleading statements and the omission of important information is not acceptable. The legal requirements such as GDPR, general data protection regulation, requirements, announcements for quoted companies, formal consultation such as redundancies or [inaudible 00:13:01] for example, must be maintained.”

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So those are some of the examples from content that must be adhere to. And the ones that should be adhered to whatever possible are, “Provision of background information that gives context for decision including access to or inclusion of relevant data such as stock market figures in an appropriate form.” I quite like that. It’s pretty straightforward. Let me give you another example. So to be adhered to from a timing of communication, this is how to work ethically. “Employees should be informed directly of any decisions that are likely to have a direct impact on their working or personal lives at the earliest opportunity.” And then to be adhered to whoever possible is, “Conscious withholding of information, when there is no legal or regulatory reason to do so, risks damaging trust and relationships.”

Again, really straightforward language. There’s so many examples within this guidance to really help you work through. And the headlines in there are things like content, timing of communication, things like accessibility, data gathering, two-way communication, diversity and inclusion. There’s all sorts in there under those headings to help you work through and think about how well is our organisation communicating and how well are we working in a trustful manner and in a respectful manner that it gives fair access to all?

One of the things that I think is useful to know is how you would approach certain situations. So one of the strengths I think of the IoIC guidance is it includes some potential scenarios, and the common thread in them is about speaking truth to power. And that’s a situation that we find ourselves in often, comms friends, where we may be the bridge between employees and leaders, leaders and employees, senior managers to frontline managers. There’s so many situations where we are the people who are providing that glue, that bridge between the organisation and its people.

And very often the ability to be that bridge depends on the strength of your relationship. So the IoIC talk about the need for us to have robust relationships inside an organisation where we are developing trust at all levels and how that should be a priority for internal communicators. And I couldn’t agree more with that. It’s super, super important. Something I want you to know is how you would deal with ethical situations. Who do you turn to? Where do you go for advice and guidance if you are not a member of a professional body? This is where I think it’s helpful to have active relationships with people inside your organisation, like your HR colleagues or perhaps your finance or legal colleagues, because very often situations could include talking about money or talking about positions. There’s all sorts of different elements where we are called upon to act in a manner that probably would benefit from having conversations in a confidential nature with other colleagues, perhaps from HR or perhaps from Legal.

So think about that for your own organisation. Do you know where you would go to get advice and guidance internally? Who would you have conversations with? And if you are not sure, ask your peers. Ask the people around you. Do you have a code of conduct inside your organisation? You probably do. Could you extract it for internal comms and look at, what’s our code of conduct? What are our principles? How do we hold ourselves to account? Something I want you to do is to think about confidentiality inside your organisation. And this is both from the context of us as internal communicators but also for our colleagues, for our employees. Very often as internal comms professionals, you get brought into conversations early, particularly in a change comms situation and it’s really important that you have confidentiality agreements in place.

Now we have this conversation frequently here are All Things IC because we work confidentially with our clients. If you look at our website, you won’t see the names and the logos of brands of all of the companies that we have the pleasure of advising. More often than not it’s because we are under nondisclosure agreements, or NDAs. That means we work ethically and sensitively with our clients where we perhaps might be helping them prepare to launch their company on the stock exchange. For example, going through an IPO, initial public offering. It’s not appropriate to share the fact that we are doing that. Or we might be teaching leaders and line managers how to communicate in difficult situations because a whole raft of redundancies are about to happen inside the organisation. Again, that’s not something that we would publicise doing.

I work out loud quite a lot, particularly through my blog and through my social media activity. But what you won’t see is me saying exactly what I’m doing and who for because I have to work confidentially. All of our contracts at All Things IC say that we are members of the CIPR and we abide by their code of conduct. And we evoke that code quite frequently and we will push back quite frequently. It’s built into the way we work, it’s embedded, part and parcel of the way we communicate, the way we think and the way we make decisions.

So you may be, if you look at my Instagram, @RachelAllThingsIC, you may see a training table set up and I may say, “In my training space in West London, I’m looking forward to working with the comms team today and welcoming them to the All Things IC hub.” But I probably won’t say who they are and I probably won’t say what we are doing because we’re working confidentially. So I’m sharing glimpses of what I’m doing, but not the detail because it’s confidential, because I’ve signed an agreement that says, “I won’t do that and my team also won’t do that.”

That’s huge for us because that trust is super important. You will have your own examples, particularly if you’re working in-house where you are brought into conversations early. Leaders tell you things early. You know that change is coming. You know that something’s happening. You know that a leader is leaving or there’s a rebrand or there’s an office move, or whatever it may be. You know early and you have to work ethically. You have to work sensitively. You have to work in a confidential way.

So internal communicators regularly deal with confidential situations. Also, within our organisations, we have situations where we have to work confidentially, so it may be… I mentioned the employee survey earlier. That’s one of the most robust examples I think that you have inside organisations where you’re encouraging your people to contribute and do so in a confidential way. You have to uphold that. Your employees have to know that you take their comments really seriously and you work with them really sensitively and ethically and do the right thing.

The other thing to be mindful of when we’re working internally and we are thinking about confidentiality is do you have policies within the organisation? A couple of my in-house roles when I was working in-house for 10 years, we were going through very, very sensitive change and as a comms team, we had to sign non-disclosure agreements. And I remember the first time it happened, feeling quite overwhelmed by it actually, and feeling very, very responsible and feeling like, “Oh my goodness, I know things that I can’t tell other people.” Now, many years on, I’m very, very comfortable with. That is something that is part and parcel of being a good strategic internal communicator, is helping people do the planning. In order to do the planning, you need to have the information. And when it’s sensitive, you probably need to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

If you’re working inside an organisation and you are being exposed to content and ideas and things that you’re not quite sure about, then why not have a conversation and talk to your legal team or talk to your HR team about non-disclosure agreements. Get it in writing, get it really, really clear who can I say what to? That’s such an important question to ask. I found, when I was working in-house, my whole comms team were involved in this major change that we were about to launch and we were all involved, so I could very comfortably talk with my boss and with my boss’s boss. We were all able to talk together collectively as a team.

Sometimes I found, when I was working in-house, I didn’t know who else knew. And I also was put under pressure. I’d have people stop me in corridors and head office saying, “Rachel, you must know what’s happening about XYZ.” And you know what? Most of the time, yeah, I did know that there was something was happening and I was involved in it, but I could not say and I would not say because that would be the wrong thing to do.

So I encourage you to think about that. How do you set your internal comms team up for success? How do you create clarity for you, as practitioners, that protects you? How do you create certainty in terms of what am I allowed to say? Who knows about this project? Because all of the wicked whispers and all of the tensions that are happening when you’re involved in… particularly if you’re involved in a big project, can be pretty overwhelming. So the key thing for me always is that you know and you have real certainty and real clarity in terms of what am I being asked to do? How does this sit with me morally, ethically? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? And what protection is in place for me? Where do I go if I need to offload about this? Can I call our employee assistance programme, EAP helpline, which is available to support our employees mental health and wellbeing if I’m really overwhelmed about this project?

Possibly not actually. So where is that support? Where is that mental health and wellbeing support for you, as an internal communicator, when you are exposed to sensitive information, to difficult information? That’s a good question to ask, comms friends. And I encourage you to do so. We’re going to take a short break and when we come back, I’m going to leave you with one thing to think about. See you in a moment.

What happens inside is reflected outside

Welcome back. In the final part of today’s show, we are going to be focusing on what we need to think about to work ethically as internal communicators. And I want to share with you something that we do at All Things IC really regularly, and that is to say no to people. Sometimes we are asked to do something which doesn’t sit well with us and I have empowered all of my team to say no. And they can always check in with me and ask for my advice and guidance and ask me what I think they should do, but when there is a situation that doesn’t feel right, we say no.

Let me give you an example. A few months back there was a local authority, so a local government organisation here in the UK, where we were approached by a member of the IT team. And this particular person used to work in the internal comms team. They approached us, at All Things IC, and said, “Can you please put a proposal together for this particular piece of work that I think is really important and I would like to see whether you can support us with it.”

So Caroline, in my team, spent some time listening, had a consultation call to understand what the requirements were, what the brief was, so what the scope of the work was, before we would then potentially go back with a proposal or a statement of work, which is where, as consultants, we outline, “This is the problem that you’re trying to solve, this is what we will do, this is how long it will take, and this is what your investment is,” for example.

From having the conversation with the person in the IT team, it became very evident that the reason they wanted this piece of work to happen and for us to quote on the piece of work was because this person had no faith in the internal comms team. And her plan was to get a proposal from us, to have a quote from us, fully costed out, what we would do, how it would work, how much it would cost. And then her plan was to have a conversation with the internal comms team and say, “Can you, in-house internal comms team, do this piece of work please?” And when, she thought they would inevitably do, when they said no, her plan was to get out this proposal and say, “Well, it doesn’t matter because I found this consultancy at All Things IC and they’re going to do it for me.”

And when we found out… Oh, that makes me go funny even talking about it. When we found out that was the plan, that our work and our recommendations of this piece of work would be used as a kind of slap in the face to the internal comms team, the answer from us was, “Hell no.” The answer from us was, “We don’t work like that.” Can you imagine being in that internal comms team and being asked to do a piece of work and then saying no for whatever reason. I don’t know the ins and outs of that organisation.

If you said no, and then your stakeholder turned around and said, “Not to worry, I found this consultancy and they’re going to do it anyway for us,” that would be awful for you as an internal communicator. And what would you think about All Things IC? What would you think about my business, our brand, my company? What would you think? I doubt it’ll be favourable. So that’s not how we work, comms friends. That’s not what my business does. We are focused on nurturing and advising and supporting through consultancy, training and mentoring. That’s what we do. We look after internal communicators. We aren’t used as a stick to beat other people with. That’s not what we do.

So we are very, very confident in saying no and pushing back and saying, “We will not be doing this piece of work, we will not be progressing with this. We won’t even pull the statement of work together. That is not how we work. We are not the right people for you if that’s what you want to use us for.” And I’m very comfortable doing that. We have a say in here at All Things IC, when we’re thinking about who we choose to work with, and we have such a privilege of supporting and advising internal communicators and their companies around the globe. The business is nearly 10 years old. And throughout that time, I’ve developed this mindset in terms of if you say no to the wrong thing, it allows space for the right thing to come through.

And every single time we have done this as a team, every single time something has come through that has jarred with us ethically, where we don’t believe we are the right people to do that particular piece of work, or we don’t believe that that client is the right sort of fit for us, we will say no and often, be really candid with you, often that means walking away from a really nice paycheck.

But the importance for me, and for us as a team, is working ethically and sensitively with our clients and comms friends and organisations that we advise. If we say yes to the wrong thing, it shuts off the potential of the right clients to come through and this sort of work where… It happens all the time. Caroline in our team is the first person who most of our clients talk to, or potential clients talk to. And I love nothing more that when she gets in touch and says, “Oh Rachel, this has come through and this organisation want us do to do this, and I think we’d be a really great fit.” And I love that. If I’d said yes to the wrong organisation, it means we don’t have the capacity and the time to support the right sorts of projects.

So that was very honest, comms friends. And the reason for sharing that with you is I do believe when you say no to the wrong things, it does always… Every single time this happens. Every time we say no, it creates space for the next project that pops up is perfect, it’s ideal or it’s way more aligned with how we think and how we support and nurture and advise internal communicators. And that’s what we say yes to. So think about that for you. What do you need to say no to inside your organisation or the way that you work? Are there certain things that you are being called upon to do, which ethically do not sit well with you? Maybe they jar with your personal values, maybe they jar with your organisational values. Maybe they just make you feel really uncomfortable. I don’t mean just in a really downplayed way there. If they just make you feel uncomfortable, that’s enough. Push back. Say no.

I hope you found this episode useful. If you are grappling with ethical internal communication, I’m going to include some further reading on the show notes for this episode. If you go to AllThingsIC.com/podcast and look up the show notes this episode, I’ll include some additional reading. There’s some blogs from other internal communicators that I think you’d find interesting. I’ll put all of those together in the show notes for this episode.

I’d love to know what you are doing differently as a result of listening to this episode of the Candid Comms Podcast. If it’s made you think, “Oh my goodness, I’ve worked in internal comms for years and I’ve never encountered anything like this.” Amazing. Good on you. Brilliant. But if you do, I hope you now feel equipped, and I hope you now feel able to know where to go to get advice and guidance and seek help.

Where did you listen to this episode and what are you going to do differently as a result of what you heard while you were walking the dog, or in the supermarket, or in the bath? Do get in touch with me. You can find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC, look me up on LinkedIn, Rachel Miller, find me on Instagram, RachelAllThingsIC, or send me a note via the website, AllThingsIC.com/contact.

And remember, what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

First published on the All Things IC blog 30 September 2022.

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