Chapter 4: Ethics

Michael Beilfuss

Chapter Synopsis

In this chapter, you will learn about some of the ethical challenges that you may encounter in your professional and academic life, especially when it comes to technical writing. The chapter explains the importance of articulating your own ethical code so you can be prepared when you find yourself in uncomfortable and/or unethical situations. The chapter covers ethical principles, how ethics may affect the presentation of information, and some common ethical problems encountered by technical writers. Much of this chapter is concerned with the appropriate and ethical use and documentation of sources. The chapter provides some practical information on how to make sure your writing is ethical and how to handle ethical dilemmas along with possible legal issues in the workplace.

4.1 Ethics in Technical Writing

You probably think about technical writing in relation to communicating technical information clearly in an accessible format that meets the needs of its audience. These are important aspects of technical writing, to be sure, but they only represent the surface of what you need to know. This chapter will introduce some of the ethical issues that may arise as technical writers research, write, revise, and produce a technical document.

Like other professionals, technical writers come up against ethical issues regularly and must make decisions about how to move forward with a project in the face of ethical dilemmas. Writers may encounter situations in which they must ask the following kinds of questions: What kinds of support material and sources are ethical to use? Are open web sources just as valid as academic sources for certain topics? Can email communications be used without permission? What if the writer discovers that a company falsified data about the effectiveness of its product? Should they reveal this in their report or should they take other courses of action? How much should a writer adapt to an audience without sacrificing their own views?

Ethics principles provide the basis for deciding whether “x” is ethical, but in reality, ethical issues are complicated—for example, imagine working for a large company that employs substantial numbers of people in your town, where relatively few other employment opportunities exist. Imagine that the company disposes of its chemical waste in a way that could endanger people’s health. While the company may be following the law, it is clear they could dispose of their waste more safely and be more responsible stewards of the neighborhood. However, that would cost the company more money, and may affect profit margins, result in slower growth, and provide fewer jobs for the locals. What do you do? Is quarterly growth and expanding jobs more serious than the risk of future health problems and a degraded environment? Which choice is really more ethical?

Many ethical lapses that occur in the workplace are not so obvious, and they often begin with good intentions – for example, a manager or owner of a business may commit financial fraud to avoid laying off employees. The intention may be good, but breaching ethics results in a slippery slope – one that often leads to further and larger ethical breaches. Falsifying one report will make it that much more likely the subsequent reports will be falsified, just as neglecting to properly cite one source at the end of a report only makes it more tempting to neglect citing the remainder of the sources.

Acting ethically is rarely rewarded from the outside – you are not likely to be congratulated by your boss and co-workers for passing on an opportunity to undermine the competition in an unethical manner. The “rewards” of acting ethically are often simply internal. It is important to think about ethics and articulate your ethical values before you find yourself in a situation where ethics will factor into your decision-making. With a strong set of ethical values, you will be better prepared to make the right decision and stick to your principles when faced with an ethical dilemma.

There is a good chance that at some point in your career you will find yourself in a situation that involves unethical behavior at your workplace. You may be faced with having to decide to go along with unethical actions or behavior, ignore the behavior, or report unethical conduct to the appropriate person (internally or externally). It could be something as simple (albeit pernicious) as harassment, or it could be something as large as major fraud. It may be easier to mind our own businesses and keep quiet, but really the only right thing to do is to stand up, and speak up, for what is right.

We are taught from a young age that you should never “rat” on anyone, and staying silent is often easier than mustering the courage to reveal ethical corruption. However, sometimes speaking up, and/or notifying authorities is the only right thing to do, as difficult as that may be. The National Whistle Blower center is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that has many resources available for individuals who may be faced with the difficult situation of doing the right thing (

You should spend some time examining your ethics and thinking about how and where they may be challenged in your career. What will you do when you are asked, implicitly or explicitly, to compromise your ethics? What will you do when you witness unfair, demeaning, and unethical behavior? In almost every field, there are legal and professional consequences for committing unethical behavior, and often remaining silent about corrupt conduct—whether the action are yours or a colleague’s—can implicate you as well.

4.2 General Principles

In day-to-day life, most people have a sort of sliding scale on what constitutes ethical behavior. For example, you might tell your best friend their new haircut looks attractive when in fact you believe that it does not. This lie, though minor, preserves your friend’s feelings and does no apparent harm to them or anyone else. Some might consider the context before determining how to act. For example, you might not tell a stranger that they were trailing toilet paper but you would tell a friend. With a stranger, your calculations may include how the stranger might respond to the interruption, and both of you may feel some embarrassment in the exchange. Such calculations may make it easier for you to look away and let someone else deal with it, but with a friend, you would be willing to risk some short-term awkwardness to do the right thing.

In a far more serious situation, a person might not risk their lives to help a stranger, but they might risk their lives to help a close friend or relative. For example, if you witnessed a stranger attacking someone you do not know on a crowded street, you may be afraid to interfere because you could be injured in the event. Instead, you might stay back and call the police. But if a close friend or a relative was in the same danger, you may be more likely to put yourself in harm’s way to protect your friend. In this case, your commitment to loyalty might outweigh your sense of self-preservation. In the former case, if you valued physical courage above all else, you might be willing to step into a fight to protect a victim. In either case, weighing the costs, and having a strong value system would help you feel like you did the right thing, especially upon reflection after the event.

Ethical behavior, including ethical technical communication, involves not just telling the truth and providing accurate information, but telling the truth and providing information so that a reasonable audience is made aware of the behavior. It also means that you act to prevent actual harm, with set criteria for what kinds and degrees of harm are more serious than others. For example, saving someone’s life should always outweigh the prospect of financial damage to your company. Human values, and human life, are far more important than monetary values and financial gain. As a guideline, ask yourself what would happen if your action (or non-action) became entirely public, and started trending on social media, got its own hashtag, and became a meme picked up by the national media. If you would go to prison, lose your friends, lose your job, or even just feel embarrassed, the action is probably unethical. If your actions cannot stand up to that scrutiny, you might reconsider them. Having a strong ethical foundation always helps. However, nothing is ever easy when it comes to ethical dilemmas. Sometimes the right thing to do is the unpopular thing to do. Just because some action enjoys the adulation of the masses, does not necessarily means it is ethical. That is another reason why it is important to give some serious thought to your own value system and how it may fit into the value systems of the exemplars your admire and respect. That way, you will be better prepared to do the right thing when you are confronted with an ethical dilemma. Internalizing your ethics in such a manner will certainly make you a more ethical writer.

4.3 Professional Ethics

Many organizations and employers have a corporate code of ethics. If you are a technical writer and you join a professional associations such as the Society of Technical Communicators you will need to be aware their codes of ethics, published online (e.g., If you are a technical writer researching and writing a report within a specific professional field, you will also need to be aware to that field’s codes of ethics. For example, if you are writing a report for a group of physical therapists on the latest techniques for rehabilitating knee surgery patients, you should be aware of the code of ethics for physical therapists so that you work within those principles as you research and write your report.

Look for the codes of ethics in your own discipline and begin to read and understand what will be expected of you as a professional in your field. 

4.4 Presentation of Information

How a writer presents information in a document can affect a reader’s understanding of the relative weight or seriousness of that information. For example, hiding some crucial bit of information in the middle of a long paragraph deep in a long document seriously de-emphasizes the information. On the other hand, putting a minor point in a prominent spot (say the first item in a bulleted list in a report’s executive summary) might be a manipulative strategy to emphasize information that is not terribly important. Both of these examples could be considered unethical, as the display of information is crucial to how readers encounter and interpret it.

A classic example of unethical technical writing is the memo report NASA engineers wrote about the problem with O-ring seals on the space shuttle Challenger. The unethical feature was that the crucial information about the O-rings was buried in a middle paragraph, while information approving the launch was in prominent beginning and ending spots. Presumably, the engineers were trying to present a full report, including safe components in the Challenger, but the memo’s audience—non-technical managers—mistakenly believed the O-ring problem to be inconsequential, even if it happened. The position of information in this document did not help them understand that the problem could be fatal.

Ethical writing, then, involves being ethical, of course, but also presenting information so that your target audience will understand the relative importance of information and understand whether some technical fact is a good thing or a bad thing.

4.5 Ethical Issues in Technical Writing

There are a few issues that may come up when researching a topic for the business or technical world that a writer must consider. Let us look at a few.

Research that Does Not Support Project Idea

In a technical report that contains research, a writer might discover conflicting data that does not support the project’s goal. For example, your small company continues to have problems with employee morale. Research shows bringing in an outside expert, someone who is unfamiliar with the company and the stakeholders, has the potential to impact the greatest change. You discover, however, that to bring in such an expert is cost prohibitive. You struggle with whether to leave this information out of your report, thereby encouraging your employer to pursue an action that is not the most productive. In this situation, what would you do, and why?

Suppressing Relevant Information

Imagine you are researching a report for a parents’ group that wants to change the policy in the local school district requiring all students to be vaccinated. You collect a handful of sources that support the group’s goal, but then you discover convincing medical evidence that indicates vaccines do more good than potential harm in society. Since you are employed by this parents’ group, should you leave out the medical evidence, or do you have a responsibility to include all research, even some that might sabotage the group’s goal? Is it your responsibility to tell the truth (and potentially save children’s lives) or to cherry pick information that supports the parent group’s initial intentions?

Limited Source Information in Research

Thorough research requires a writer to integrate information from a variety of reliable sources. These sources should demonstrate that the writer has examined the topic from as many angles as possible. This includes scholarly and professional research, not just from a single database or journal, for instance, but from a variety. Using a variety of sources helps the writer avoid potential bias that can occur from relying on only a few experts. If you were writing a report on the real estate market in Stillwater, Oklahoma, you would not collect data from only one broker’s office. While this office might have access to broader data on the real estate market, as a writer you run the risk of looking biased if you only chose materials from this one source. Collecting information from multiple brokers would demonstrate thorough and unbiased research. (See chapter 10 for more on research.)

Presenting Visual Information Ethically

Visuals can be useful for communicating data and information efficiently for a reader. They provide data in a concentrated form, often illustrating key facts, statistics or information from the text of the report. When writers present information visually, however, they have to be careful not to misrepresent or misreport the complete picture.

The graphic below shows two perspectives of information in a pie chart. The data in each is identical but the pie chart on the left presents information in a misleading way (see Figure 1). What do you notice, however, about how that information is conveyed to the reader?


Image showing misleading pie chart
Figure 1: Misleading and regular pie charts

Imagine that these pie charts represented donations received by four candidates for city council. The candidate represented by the green slice labeled “Item C,” might think that she had received more donations than the candidate represented in the blue “Item A” slice. In fact, if we look at the same data in a differently oriented chart, we can see that Item C represents less than half of the donations than those for Item A. Thus, a simple change in perspective can change the impact of an image.

Similarly, take a look at the bar graphs in Figure 2 below. What do you notice about their presentation?


Image showing misleading and regular bar graph
Figure 2: Misleading and regular bar graphs

If the bar graph above were to represent sales figures for a company, the representation on the left would look like good news: dramatically increased sales over a five-year period. However, a closer look at the numbers shows that the graph shows only a narrow range of numbers in a limited perspective (9100 to 9800). The bar graph on the right, on the other hand, shows the complete picture by presenting numbers from zero to1200 on the vertical axis, and we see that the sales figures have in fact been relatively stable for the past five years.

Presenting data in graphical form can be especially challenging. Keep in mind the importance of providing appropriate context and perspective as you prepare your graphics. You need to be extra vigilant to avoid misleading your readers with graphics. Graphics will usually be the first thing a reader notices about your document; if a reader finds your graphics misleading, your entire document may be called into question.

Additional Concerns

You might notice that most of these ethics violations could happen accidentally. Directly lying is unlikely to be accidental, but even in that case, the writer could rationalize and/or persuade themselves that the lie achieved some “greater good” and was therefore necessary. This is a slippery slope.

An even more common ethics violation results from the person who designs the information mistakenly believing that they are presenting evidence objectively, without recognizing their own bias in how they presented that information.

Most ethics violations in technical writing are (probably) unintentional, but they are still ethics violations. That means a technical writer must consciously identify their biases and check to see if a bias has influenced any presentation: whether in charts and graphs, or in discussions of the evidence, or in source use (or, of course, in putting the crucial O-ring information where the launch decision makers would realize it was important).

For example, scholarly research is intended to find evidence that the new researcher’s ideas are valid (and important) or evidence that those ideas are partial, trivial, or simply wrong. In practice, though, most folks are primarily looking for support. “Hey, I have this great new idea that will solve world hunger, cure cancer, and make mascara really waterproof. Now I just need some evidence to prove I am right!” This is one version of confirmation bias (  – where people tend to favor evidence that supports their preconceived notions and reject evidence that challenges their ideas or beliefs. (See chapter 10 for more information on ethical research principles.)

On the other hand, if you can easily find 94 high-quality sources that confirm you are correct, you might want to consider whether your idea is worth developing. Often in technical writing, the underlying principle is already well-documented (maybe even common knowledge for your audience) and the point should be to use that underlying principle to propose a specific application.

Using a large section of your report to prove an already established principle implies that you are saying something new about the principle—which is not true. Authors of technical documents typically do not have the time or space to belabor well-known points or common-sense data because readers do not need to read page upon page of something they already know or something that can be proved in a sentence of two. When you use concepts, ideas, or findings that have been established by others, you only need to briefly summarize your source and provide accurate references. Then you can apply the information from your source(s) to your specific task or proposal.

4.6 Ethics and Documenting Sources

The most immediate concern regarding ethics in your technical writing course is documenting your sources. Whatever content you borrow must be clearly documented both in the body of your text and in a works cited or references page (the different terms reflect different documentation systems, not just random preference) at the end. See chapter 10 for more information on appropriately documenting your research.

Including an item only in the source list at the end suggests you have used the source in the report, but if you have not cited this source in the text as well, you could be seen as misleading the reader. Either you are saying it is a source when in fact you did not really use anything from it, or you have simply failed to clarify in the text what are your ideas and what comes from other sources.

Documenting source use in such a way as to either mislead your reader about the source or make identifying the source difficult is also unethical—that would include using just a URL or using an article title without identifying the journal in which it appears (in the works cited/references; you would not likely identify the journal name in the report’s body). It would also be unethical to falsify the nature of the source, such as omitting the number of pages in the works cited entry to make a brief note seem to be a full article.

Unethical source use includes suppressing information about how you have used a source, such as not making clear that graphical information in your report was already a graph in your source, as opposed to a graph you created on the basis of information in the source.

With the ease of acquiring graphics on the internet, it has become ever more tempting to simply copy and paste images from a search engine. Without providing accurate citation information, the practice of cutting and pasting images is nothing less than plagiarism (or theft); it is unethical, and may be illegal if it violates copyright law. Furthermore, it is downright lazy. Develop good habits now and maintain them through practice. Properly cite your images by providing credit to the original creator of the image with full citations. You cannot just slap a URL under a picture, but rather you need to give full credit with an appropriate citation. Any assignment turned in that uses material from an outside source, including graphics and images, needs to include in-text citations as well as a list of references.

What about Open Source Images?

If you need to use graphics from the internet, a good option is to look for graphics that are open source. Open source refers to material that is freely available for anyone to use. Creative Commons is an organization that has developed guidelines to allow people to “share their knowledge and creativity.” They provide “free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use” creative work (“What we Do” There are a number of options ( that a creator has in regards to how they want to set up permissions, but the idea is that these works are free for anyone to use; they are open source.

Graphics created by the federal government, say from the National Park Service, or the FDA, or the EPA, are not under copyright, and therefore can be used without having to go through the sometimes-onerous process of securing permissions. This is particularly helpful for written materials that will be professionally published.

Likewise, you can customize a Google image search so that only images that are open source will come up. If you click on the “Tools” button, you have the option of filtering results by how they are licensed. See Figure 3 below.


Figure 3: A screen shot from a Google search where the images are filtered by their license.


Regardless of the copyright, you should always keep track of where you found the graphics, and for assignments for your class, you need to record the source so you can cite it. If you use graphics (or anything at all) in an assignment that you did not create, you need to indicate as much. Just because a graphic is open source, does not mean that you can pass it off as your own work, and if you don’t cite it, that is exactly what you are doing, whether or not that was your intention.

Many problems in documenting sources occur because the writer is missing the point of source use. Remember, you must clearly distinguish between your ideas and borrowed material; and you must use borrowed material primarily as evidence for your own, directly stated ideas.

Intellectual Property

Patents and trademarks are company names (WalMart), logos (the Target bullseye), processes or slogans (McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it”) that belong to a person or company. None of these things can be used without proper recognition of or approval from the appropriate company or individual involved. A company uses a ™ to show something is trademarked or an ® for something registered with the U.S Patent and Trademark Office.  An example would be Nike and their famous swoosh symbol.

This law extends beyond the major companies. Any written document in your own company is copyrighted by law once produced. That means if you are borrowing a good idea from a friend at another company, you must cite them as a source. Also, although not required by law, it is a good idea to cite sources from inside your own company as well. You would not want someone else taking credit for your ideas. Why should you treat others any differently?

The legal consequences are most notable when one considers writing in the professional world. While plagiarizing may give you a failing grade in a class, plagiarizing in the workplace can get you fired, and could result in a costly lawsuit or possibly even jail time. It is not only ethical to follow these rules, it is an enforced law. Make sure you properly document all sources so as not to mislead a reader.

Copyright law includes items whose distribution is protected by law (books, movies, or software). The copyright symbol is shown with a ©. Copyright is different from plagiarism in that it is a legal issue. Only the copyright holder, the person/organization who owns the protected item, can copy it.  Spend a few minutes checking out The United States Patent and Trademark Office ( for clarification on trademarks, patents, and copyright.

Some considerations made by the court when determining if a copyright law has been violated include:

  • The character, purpose of use, and amount of information being used. Was it a phrase, sentence, chapter, or an entire piece of work? Was the information simply copied and pasted as a whole or changed? Was it taken from something published or unpublished? What was it used for?
  • If the person using another’s material did so to profit from it.  Only the copyright holders should profit from material they own. For example, this is why a faculty member cannot use their personal DVD for a movie screening on campus and charge students to attend the viewing.
  • If using someone else’s property affected the market for the copyrighted work.  For example, if you take an item that would cost money to buy and copy it for other people, you are affecting the market for that product since the people you give it to will now not have to purchase it themselves. Therefore, the original owner of the material is denied a profit due to your actions.

When dealing with copyright questions, consider the following tips. First, find out if the item can be used. Sometimes, the copyright holder allows it if credit is given. Second, do not use large amounts of another person’s information. Third, if possible, ask permission to use another person’s work. In addition, and most importantly, cite sources accurately so as to give credit to another person’s ideas if you are able to use them.

4.7 Ethics, Plagiarism, and Reliable Sources

Unlike personal or academic writing, technical and professional writing can be used to evaluate your job performance and can have implications that a writer may or may not have considered. Whether you are writing for colleagues within your workplace or outside vendors or customers, you will want to build a solid, well-earned, favorable reputation for yourself with your writing. Your goal is to maintain and enhance your credibility, and that of your organization, at all times.

Credibility can be established through many means: using appropriate professional language, citing highly respected sources, providing reliable evidence, and using sound logic. Make sure as you start your research that you always question the credibility of the information you find. You should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the sources popular or scholarly?
  • Are they peer reviewed by experts in the field?
  • Can the information be verified by other sources?
  • Are the methods and arguments based on solid reasoning and sound evidence?
  • Is the author identifiable and do they have appropriate credentials?

Be cautious about using sources that are not reviewed by peers or editor, or in which the information cannot be verified, or seems misleading, biased, or even false. Be a wise information consumer in your own reading and research in order to build your reputation as an honest, ethical writer. See chapter 10 for more information on credibility and evaluating secondary sources.

Quoting the work of others in your writing is fine, provided that you credit the source fully enough that your readers can find it on their own. If you fail to take careful notes, or the sentence is present in your writing but later fails to get accurate attribution, it can have a negative impact on you and your organization. That is why it is important that when you find an element you would like to incorporate in your document, in the same moment as you copy and paste or make a note of it in your research file you need to note the source in a complete enough form to find it again.

Giving credit where credit is due will build your credibility and enhance your document. Moreover, when your writing is authentically yours, your audience will catch your enthusiasm, and you will feel more confident in the material you produce. Just as you have a responsibility in business to be honest in selling your product or service and avoid cheating your customers, so you have a responsibility in business writing to be honest in presenting your idea, and the ideas of others, and to avoid cheating your readers with plagiarized material.

4.8 Ethical Writing

Throughout your career, you will be required to create many documents. Some may be simple and straightforward, some may be difficult and involve questionable objectives. Overall, there are a few basic points to adhere to whenever you are writing a professional document: a) do not mislead, b) do not manipulate, and c) do not stereotype.

Do Not Mislead

This has more than one meaning to the professional writer. The main point is clear. When writing persuasively, do not write something that can cause the reader to believe something that is not true. This can be done by lying, misrepresenting facts, or just “twisting” numbers to favor your opinion and objectives. Once you are on the job, you cannot leave out numbers that show you are behind or over-budget on a project, no matter how well it may work once it is completed. Be cautious when using figures, charts and tables, making sure they visually represent quantities with accuracy and honesty. While this may seem easy to read about, when the pressure is on and there are deadlines to meet, taking shortcuts and stretching the truth become ever more tempting.

Do Not Manipulate

Do not persuade people to do what is not in their best interest. A good writer with bad motives can twist words to make something sound like it is beneficial to all parties. The audience may find out too late that what you wrote only benefited you and actually hurt them. Make sure all stakeholders are considered and cared for when writing a persuasive document. It is easy to get caught up in the facts and forget all the people involved. Their feelings and livelihood must be considered with every appropriate document you create.

Do Not Stereotype

Most stereotyping takes place subconsciously now since workplaces are careful to not openly discriminate. It is something we may not even be aware we are doing, so it is always a good idea to have a peer or coworker proofread your documents to make sure you have not included anything that may point to discriminatory assumptions.

The not-for-profit organization Project Implicit ( has been researching subconscious biases for years and has developed several, free online tests. (  The tests can help you understand your proclivities and subconscious biases. Knowing your biases may help you begin to overcome them.

4.9 Addressing Unethical Practices

It is difficult to deal with unethical practices when they surface in the workplace. The hardest part may be simply raising the issue with your co-workers and/or supervisor. In his book Technical Communication: A Reader-Centered Approach, Paul Anderson reviews three ways that you can bring your company’s practices to the surface. It is easiest to first start asking questions. Simply asking questions can be an effective way of bringing attention to your company’s problems. Ask questions about who their decisions are affecting and why they are making those decisions. This will allow you to voice your thoughts without putting you on the spot for being the bad guy.

The second idea Anderson describes is to use facts or reason, instead of accusation. Before you raise questions about your company’s unethical practices, make sure you use evidence instead of accusations. Often, accusations are made about situations when people do not truly know the reason those decisions were being made. If you base your concerns on evidence, your company will assume you looked into the situation and will take your thoughts more seriously.

The third helpful way to bring your company’s unethical practices to the surface is to remain open to other’s ideas. What this allows you to do is base a solution around many different sides instead of just your own. Since people usually have different ethical values, your own stance may not coincide with everyone else’s. Make sure you identify possible values of others when considering possible solutions.

Ethics Decision Checklist

  • What is the nature of the ethical dilemma?
  • What are the specific aspects of this dilemma that make you uncomfortable?
  • What are your competing obligations in this dilemma?
  • What advice does a trusted supervisor or mentor offer?
  • Does your company’s code of conduct address this issue?
  • Does your professional association’s code of conduct address this issue?
  • What are you unwilling to do? What are you willing to do?
  • How will you explain or justify your decision?

4.10 Legal Issues and Communication

In business, image is everything. Public opinion of a company affects a consumer’s views on that company’s products. This, in turn, affects the company’s public profit, and essentially its standing. When a company is involved in a lawsuit or a recall, the company has to consider the consequences that these issues will have on their business and needs to consider the costs of repairing the company’s reputation. These are among the reasons certain documents are carefully reviewed before being sent to their intended readers. To write ethically, you must also identify another group of people: the individuals who will gain or lose because of your message. Collectively, these people are called stakeholders because they have a stake in what you are writing. Only by learning who these stakeholders are can you assure that you are treating them in accordance with your own ethical values. When crafting your communication, think about who will be affected by what you say and how you say it.

Under the law, most documents written by employees represent the position and commitments of the organization itself. There are always legal issues to consider when writing a professional document and they reflect in writing style. Professional documents can serve as evidence in disputes over contracts and in product liability lawsuits. Being caught in a lawsuit has many consequences for a company. The money spent on lawyers and the time spent in court takes away resources a company could use for improving business and products. Lawsuits also have ramifications for a company’s reputation. Product recalls can be another legal problem for companies.

There are a number of reasons why a company may face a lawsuit or a recall. One of the main reasons a company gets involved in a lawsuit is because the directions to the company’s product were not clear to the consumer. For this reason, the general guideline is that instructions should be understandable, clear and concise at the fourth to sixth grade reading level. Also, when in a lawsuit, a company has to remember that all documents may be subpoenaed. This means that any document from memos and emails to proposals and studies can be subject to revision by a court of law. Another reason a company gets into a lawsuit may be over a recall. Many products are recalled for potential safety concerns, even if no one was actually hurt. To avoid safety recalls, companies need to make sure they consider every possible danger involved with a product. Some dangers may seem to be common knowledge, but companies should be aware of those and label the product accordingly, regardless of assumptions about common knowledge.

Legal Requirements: Protecting Consumers

Documentation should prepare readers to safely use the product. US law stipulates that a manual must list any hazards that may occur “from the intended or unintended but reasonably foreseeable use of its products.” (  You have a legal duty to warn consumers when:

  • The product supplied is dangerous
  • The danger is or should be known by the manufacturer
  • The danger is present when the product is used in the usual and expected manner
  • The danger is not obvious or well known to the user

Failure to “adequately” warn consumers opens your company up to lawsuits. What exactly makes a warning “adequate”? Good question. Adequacy is almost impossible to define. It is much easier to define what is not adequate. Here are a few common ways that manuals or instructions fall short:

  • Failure to warn users about how to properly use a product
  • Failure to warn against risks from proper use of a product
  • Failure to warn against any reasonably foreseeable misuses of a product

The key commonality is that everything listed could result in bodily harm or death.

Safety information must also be accessible to your readers. Therefore, warnings should stand out from the rest of the documents, possibly with icons, colored fonts, or bolding. They should also be easy to understand. A confusing warning is just as bad as not warning users at all.

Contract and Liability Laws

Contract Law is an agreement between two entities.  It can be written or oral. There are usually two kinds: express warranty and implied warranty. An express warranty is a clearly written or oral statement that the product of what a product is capable of. An implied warranty can be reasonably inferred by the purchaser. How so? How the packaging is done and what is on the accompanying fliers or material can be part of this.

Liability Law helps companies and organizations act responsibly. Therefore, the company or organization is responsible for giving adequate instructions and warning users about the risks associated with the product.  They can also be held liable if a consumer is injured or damages occur.

Liability and contract laws can vary by country. European regulations are decidedly strict, and Asian laws are starting to follow suit. If you plan on selling wares internationally, account for various regional requirements. Learn about liability concerns ( and relevant international product liabilities ( before you publish your manual. As always, consult a lawyer for specific information on how to construct warnings.



Material in this chapter was adapted from the works listed below. The material was edited for tone, content, and localization.

Technical Writing, by Allison Gross, Annamarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage and Michele DiSilva, licensed CC-BY-NC-SA.

ENGL 145 Technical and Report Writingby the Bay College Online Learning Department, licensed CC-BY.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Chapter 4: Ethics Copyright © 2019 by Michael Beilfuss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book