Chapter 14: Professionalism, Etiquette, and Ethical Behaviour

Venecia Williams and Jordan Smith

Learning Objectives

  • Define professional behaviour according to the employer, customer, coworker, and other stakeholder expectations
  • Explain the importance of ethics as part of the persuasion process
  • Define and provide examples of sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as strategies for how to eliminate it
  • Identify and provide examples of eight common fallacies in persuasive speaking

Professional communication must always cater to the audience. This is true especially in face-to-face interactions where, unlike with written communication, you can assess audience reaction in real-time and adjust your message accordingly. This places the responsibility of behaving professionally in the workplace solely on you. When we speak of professional behaviour, we mean the following aspects that generally fall under the banner of soft skills:

  • Civility
  • Social Intelligence
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Social Graces
  • Business Etiquette

Each aspect will be considered in more detail, but first it is important to examine the personality traits of successful professionals. We must be careful with how we define success when we speak of personality, however. Those who lack the soft skills associated with the above aspects are difficult to work with and are usually demoted or fired. In rare instances, cruel, selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, or sociopathic people rise to positions of power through a combination of enablers tolerating or even rewarding their anti-social behaviour and their own lying, cheating, and bullying. This is an unfortunate reality that’s difficult to watch, but it’s important to avoid being enablers. It’s also important that business professionals do not allow those bad examples to become acceptable. They aren’t, and the proof is the suffering it spreads among people in their sphere of influence. For every horrible person who moves up the corporate ladder, there’ll be a trail of broken, bitter, and vengeful people in their wake. The loathing most people feel towards such people proves the importance of conducting ourselves otherwise.

Five Qualities of a Successful Professional

A persistent idea within the field of psychology is that there are five basic personality traits, often known as the “Big Five” or by the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE. Each trait contains within it a sliding scale that describes how we behave in certain situations. The five are as follows:

  • Openness to experience: curious and innovative vs. cautious and consistent
  • Conscientiousness: goal-driven and detail-oriented vs. casual and careless
  • Extraversion: outgoing and enthusiastic vs. solitary and guarded
  • Agreeableness: cooperative and flexible vs. defiant and stubborn
  • Neuroticism: anxious and volatile vs. confident and stable

Except for neuroticism, most of the traits as named correlate with professional success. Researchers have found that successful people are generally organized, innovative, outgoing, cooperative, and stable, although extraverts don’t do as well as introverts on individual tasks and agreeableness doesn’t necessarily lead to a high salary (Spurk & Abele, 2010; Neal et al., 2011).

Blending these with Guffey, Loewy, and Almonte’s six dimensions of professional behaviour in Essentials of Business Communication (2016) Figure 14.1 below presents a guide for how generally to be successful in your job, how to be well-liked, and how to be happy.

Quality Specific Behaviours
  • Consistently do your best work in the time you have to do it
  • Be organized and efficient in your workflow and time management
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish and follow through on commitments
  • Go the extra mile for anyone expecting quality work from you (while respecting time, budget, or other constraints)
  • Finish your work on time rather than leave loose ends for others
  • Speak and write clearly at a language level your audience understands
  • Be punctual: arrive at the workplace on time and deliver work by the deadline
  • Notify those expecting you when you’re running late
  • Apologize for your own errors and misunderstandings
  • Practice active listening
  • Share your expertise with others and be a positive, encouraging mentor to those entering the workplace
  • Exercise self-control with regard to conversational topics and jokes
  • Avoid contentious public and office politics, especially in writing
  • Control your biases by being vigilant in your diction (e.g., word choices involving gendered pronouns)
  • Accept constructive criticism gracefully
  • Provide helpful, improvement-focused feedback mixed with praise
  • Keep negative opinions of people to yourself
  • Be patient, understanding, and helpful towards struggling colleagues
  • Avoid even small white lies and truth-stretching logical fallacies
  • Avoid conflicts of interest or even the perception of them
  • Pay for products and services as soon as possible if not right away
  • Respect the confidentiality of private information and decisions
  • Focus on what you and your company do well rather than criticize competitors to customers and others
  • Follow proper grievance procedures rather than take vengeance
  • Be charitable whenever possible
  • Be positive and friendly, especially in introductions, as well as generous with your smile
  • Present yourself according to expectations in grooming and attire
  • Practice proper hygiene (showering, dental care, deodorant, etc.)
  • Follow general rules of dining etiquette

Figure 14.1 | Five Qualities of a Successful Professional (Source: Guffey, Loewy, & Almonte 2016, p. 309)


Civility simply means behaving respectfully towards everyone you interact with. Being civilized means following the golden rule: treat others as you expect to be treated yourself. The opposite of civility is being rude and aggressive, which creates conflict and negatively affects productivity in the workplace because it creates a so-called chilly climate or a toxic work environment. Such a workplace makes people uncomfortable, miserable, or angry—not emotions normally conducive to people doing their best work.

Social Intelligence

Having social intelligence means following social rules to cooperate and get along with others, especially in conversation. This includes reading nonverbal cues to determine:

    • How and when to initiate conversation
    • When it’s your turn to speak and when to listen in order to keep a conversation going
    • What to say and what not say
    • How to say what you mean in a manner that will be understood by your audience
    • When and how to use humour effectively and when not to
    • How and when to end conversation gracefully

People who lack social intelligence, perhaps because they missed opportunities to develop conversational skills in their formative school years, appear awkward in face-to-face conversation. They typically fail to interpret correctly nonverbal cues that say “Now it’s your turn to speak” or “Okay, I’m done with this conversation; let’s wrap it up.” It’s difficult to interact with such people either because they make you do all the work keeping the conversation going or don’t let you speak and keep going long after you wanted it to stop, forcing you to be slightly rude in ending it abruptly. Like any other type of intelligence, however, social intelligence can be developed through an understanding of the principles of good conversation and practice.

Emotional Intelligence

Like social intelligence, emotional intelligence (EI) involves being a good reader of people in social contexts, being able to distinguish different emotions, and knowing what to do about them with regard to others and yourself. Strong EI means knowing how a person is likely to react to what you’re about to say and adjusting your message accordingly, and then adjusting again according to how they actually react. Though we often hide our inner emotional state—smiling and looking happy when we’re feeling down, or wearing a neutral “poker face” to mask our excitement—in professional situations, EI enables us to get a sense of what others are actually feeling despite how they appear. It involves reading subtle nonverbal signals such as eye movements, facial expressions and fleeting micro-expressions (Ekman, 2017), posture, hands, and body movements for how they betray inner feelings different from the outward show. Beyond merely reading people, however, EI also requires knowing how to act, such as empathizing when someone is upset—even if they’re trying to hide it and show strength—because you recognize that you would be upset yourself if you were in their position.

Every interaction you have is coloured by emotion—both yours and the person or people you interact with. Though most routine interactions in the workplace are on the neutral-to-positive end of the emotional spectrum, some are negative—anywhere from being slightly upset and a little sad to downright furious. Whether those emotions are kept below the surface or allowed expression depends on self-control and the situation. Expressing such emotions in the workplace requires the good judgment represented by the 3 T’s:

  • Tact: Recognizing that what you say has a meaningful impact, tact involves the careful choice of words to achieve intended effects. In a sensitive situation where your audience is likely to be upset, for instance, tact requires that you use calming and positive words to reduce your message’s harmful impact. When you’re upset, tact likewise involves self-restraint so that you don’t express anger or frustration if it would be inappropriate. In emotionally charged professional situations, it’s important to take additional time to process information when you’re in a different emotional state before communicating about it.
  • Timing: There’s a time and place for expressing your emotions. Expressing anger when you’re extremely upset might not be a wise decision if it moves you to say things you’ll later regret. Waiting to cool down so that you can tactfully express your disappointment will get the best results if it’s an important matter. If it’s a trivial matter, however, waiting to realize that it’s not worth the effort can save you the trouble of dealing with the fallout of a strong and regrettable reaction.
  • Trust: You must trust that the person you share your feelings with will respect your privacy and keep whatever you say confidential or at least not use it against you.

By considering these 3 T’s, you can better manage the expression of your own emotions and those of the people you work with and for in the workplace. Like those who lack social intelligence, those who lack emotional intelligence can often be difficult to work with and offensive, often without meaning to be. Low emotional intelligence can be a sign of immaturity because it takes years to develop EI through extensive socialization in school years and beyond, including learning how and why people take offence. Someone who jokes openly about another’s appearance in front of them and an audience, for instance, either fails to understand the hurt feelings of the person who is the butt of the joke or doesn’t care. Either way, people like this are a liability in the workplace because their offence establishes an environment dominated by insecurity and fear.

Social Graces

Social graces include all the subtle behavioural niceties that enable you to behave respectfully in social situations. They include manners such as being polite, etiquette (e.g., dining etiquette), and your style of dress and accessories. Some of the behaviours associated with social graces include:

  • Saying please when asking someone to do something
  • Saying thank you when given something you accept
  • Saying no, thank you, but thanks for the offer when offered something you refuse
  • Complimenting someone for something they’ve done well
  • Speaking positively about others and refraining from negative comments
  • Smiling often
  • Being a good listener

Business Etiquette

Business etiquette is a set of guidelines that determine how you interact with colleagues, upper management, customers and other stakeholders. Business etiquette includes possessing good table manners, showing up for meetings on time, dressing appropriately for the office and communicating respectfully. Adherence to these rules and guidelines help to create a comfortable work environment.

Respectful Workplaces

Most of this chapter has focused on how we should behave to be effective, respected professionals in our respective workplaces. Unfortunately, this isn’t what we always see in actual workplaces. Misbehaviour is rampant and is especially harmful when it’s harassment of a sexual nature. The broader culture took a hopeful step forward toward more respectful workplaces in 2017-2018 with the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Though initially a response to high-profile sexual assault cases in the entertainment industry where perpetrators often went unpunished for decades, #MeToo activists successfully brought the movement to the broader culture via social media. After the outrage of the former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s acquittal for sexual assault charges (Gollom, 2016), Canada was ripe for a cultural shift against its own issues with toleration of sexual harassment in the workplace. Encouraged by a series of public accusations, firings, and resignations of prominent men in the entertainment, media, and political arenas throughout North America, women everywhere were encouraged to challenge widespread toleration of common sexual harassment and assault by reporting incidents to their employers and speaking out to shame everyday offenders in social media. For those who were unaware, it revealed the troubling extent of sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces.

The Prevalence of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Infographic showing the prevelence of sexual harrassment in the workplace

According to Doing Our Duty: Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA, 2018a), “sexual harassment in the workplace is an epidemic that has been allowed to persist” for too long (p. 5). In a survey of nearly a thousand HRPA members in Ontario, 43% of women said they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace, and about four-fifths said they didn’t report it to their employers (p. 12). In a separate online survey of 2000 Canadians nationwide, 34% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace and 12% of men, and nearly 40% of those say it involved someone who had a direct influence over their career success (Navigator, 2018, p. 5). These perceptions are completely out of step with what top executives believe, with 95% of 153 surveyed Canadian CEOs and CFOs confirming that sexual harassment is not a problem in their workplaces (Gandalf Group, 2017, p. 9). Clearly there are differences of opinion between those who experience sexual harassment and those in executive positions who are responsible for the safety of their employees, and much of the confusion may have to do with how sexual harassment is defined.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The Canada Labour Code’s definition of sexual harassment Infographic showing the prevelence of sexual harrassment in the workplaceis quite broad, but oriented more toward the perception of the person offended than the intentions of the offender. Though there is nothing wrong with discrete flirtation between two consenting adults on break at work, a line is crossed as soon as one of them—or third-party observers—feels uncomfortable with actions or talk of sexual nature. According to Provision 241.1 of the Code,

sexual harassment means any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee, or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion. (Government of Canada, 1985, p. 214)

The Code clarifies that all employees have a right to conduct their work without being harassed (241.2), but what does that look like in practice?


For help with understanding what specific behaviours constitute sexual harassment, the City of Toronto’s Human Rights Office’s 2017 “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” guide lists the following 21 examples of offences that have been decided in court:

  • Making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching (e.g., stroking hair, demanding hugs, or rubbing a person’s back)
  • Invading personal space
  • Using language that puts someone down because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression
  • Using sex-specific derogatory names, homophobic or transphobic epithets, slurs, or jokes
  • Leering or inappropriate staring
  • Gender-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics or mannerisms, comments that police or reinforce traditional heterosexual gender norms
  • Targeting someone for not following sex-role stereotypes (e.g., comments made to a female for being in a position of authority)
  • Showing or sending pornography, sexual images, etc. (e.g., pinning up an image of a naked man in the bathroom)
  • Making sexual jokes, including forwarding sexual jokes by email
  • Rough or vulgar language related to gender (e.g., “locker-room talk”)
  • Spreading sexual rumours, “outing” or threatening to out someone who is LGBTQ2S (e.g., sending an email to colleagues about an affair between a supervisor and another employee)
  • Making suggestive or offensive comments about members of a specific gender
  • Sexually propositioning a person
  • Bragging about sexual prowess
  • Asking questions about sexual preferences, fantasies, or activities
  • Demanding dates or sexual favours
  • Verbally abusing, threatening, or taunting someone based on gender
  • Threatening to penalize or punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances
  • Intrusive comments, questions or insults about a person’s body, physical characteristics, gender-related medical procedures, clothing, mannerisms, or other forms of gender expression
  • Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name or proper personal pronoun, or requiring a person to prove their gender
  • Circulating or posting of homophobic, transphobic, derogatory or offensive signs, caricatures, graffiti, pictures, or other materials

The guide explains that any such behaviours involving professional colleagues in the physical or online workspace, as well as offsite outside of normal hours (e.g., work parties or community events), should be reported without fear of reprisal (City of Toronto, 2017, pp. 2-3).

How to Make the Workplace More Respectful

Though the Canada Labour Code places the responsibility of ensuring a harassment-free workplace squarely on the employer (Provision 247.3), all employees must do their part to uphold one another’s right to work free of harassment. At the very least, everyone should avoid any of the 21 specific examples of sexual harassment listed above, even in the context of lighthearted banter. Employees everywhere should be held to a higher standard, which the HRPA advocates in the following recommendations:

  • All companies must have a stand-alone sexual harassment and assault policy, as required by the Labour Code.
  • All employees must familiarize themselves with their company’s sexual harassment policy, which should include guidance on how to report instances of harassment.
  • All companies must conduct training sessions on their sexual harassment policy, including instruction on what to do when harassed or witnessing harassment, and all employees must participate.

Experiencing harassment places the victim in a difficult position with regard to their job security, as does witnessing it and the duty to report. The situation is even more complicated if the perpetrator has the power to promote, demote, or terminate the victim’s or witness’s employment. If you find yourself in such a situation, seeking the confidential advice of an ombudsperson or person in a similar counselling role should be your first recourse. Absent these internal protections, consider seeking legal counsel. If you witness harassment, the important thing is to act as an ally to the person being harassed. The biggest takeaway from the development of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is that a workplace culture that permits sexual harassment will only end if we all do our part to ensure that offences no longer go unreported and unpunished.

Speaking Ethically and Avoiding Fallacies

When we consider ethical behaviour in the workplace, it’s worth revisiting the topic of persuasion so that we can address how not to persuade. In other words, how can we avoid manipulating someone in professional situations so that they don’t later feel like they were taken advantage of?

In the context of communication, manipulation is the management of facts, ideas or points of view to play upon people’s insecurities or to use emotional appeals to one’s own advantage. Though emotional appeals were part of the rhetorical triangle discussed earlier, they cross the line into manipulation when motivated by an attempt to do something against the best interests of the audience, which expects that you treat them with respect. Deliberately manipulating them by inciting fear or guilt is unethical. Likewise, deception is unethical because it uses lies, partial truths, or the omission of relevant information to deceive. No one likes to be lied to or led to believe something that isn’t true. Deception can involve intentional bias or the selection of information to support your position while negatively framing any information that might challenge your audience’s belief.

Other unethical behaviours with respect to an audience such as a workplace team include coercion and bribery. Coercion is the use of power to make someone do something they would not choose to do freely. It usually involves threats of punishment, which get the intended outcome, but results in hatred towards the coercing person or group. Bribery, which is offering something in return for an expected favour, is similarly unethical because it sidesteps normal, fair protocol for personal gain at the audience’s expense. When the rest of the team finds out that they lost out on opportunities because someone received favours for favours, an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity—hallmarks of a toxic work environment—hangs over the workplace.

Eleven Unethical Persuasive Techniques

Though you may be tempted to do anything to achieve the result of convincing someone to act in a way that benefits you and your company or organization, certain techniques are inherently unethical. The danger in using them is that they will be seen for what they are—dishonest manipulation—and you’ll lose all credibility rather than achieve your goal. Just as we have a set of DOs for how to convince someone effectively in a decent way, we also have a set of DON’Ts for what not to do.

In Ethics in Human Communication, Richard Johannesen (1996) offers eleven points to consider when speaking persuasively. Do not:

  1. Use false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted or irrelevant evidence to support arguments or claims
  2. Intentionally use unsupported, misleading, or illogical reasoning
  3. Represent yourself as an “expert” (or even informed) on a subject when you’re not
  4. Use irrelevant appeals to divert attention from the issue at hand
  5. Ask your audience to link your idea or proposal to emotion-driven values, motives, or goals to which it is unrelated
  6. Deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose, your self-interest, the group you represent, or your position as an advocate of a viewpoint
  7. Distort, hide, or misrepresent the number, scope, intensity, or undesirable features of consequences or effects
  8. Use “emotional appeals” that lack a supporting basis of evidence or reasoning
  9. Oversimplify complex, multi-layered, nuanced situations into simplistic, two-valued, either/or, polar views or choices
  10. Pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate
  11. Advocate for something that you yourself do not believe in

If you tried any of the above tricks and were found out by a critical-thinking audience, you risk irreparable damage to your reputation personally and that of your company.

Though you might think that the above guidelines wipe out most of a marketer’s available techniques, in fact, they leave plenty of room for creative argument following the model for persuasive argument outlined in Chapter 9. After all, the goal of any such argument in a professional situation is to achieve a mutually beneficial result, one where both you and your audience benefit by getting something you both want or need in a free and honest exchange. Your audience will appreciate your fair dealing as you build your credibility or ethos.

Avoiding Fallacies

Logicians (experts on logic) have long pointed out a set of rhetorical tricks, called fallacies, that fraudsters use to convince others of an argument that has no merit on its own. Though these fallacies are typically deceptive in nature, they still manage to convince many people in ways that undermine their own interests. Whenever you see anyone resorting to these tricks, you should probably be suspicious of what they’re selling or getting you to support. To be ethical in the way you present arguments in professional situations and steer clear of being held under suspicion by a critical audience yourself, avoid the eight fallacies explored below in Figure 14.2.

Fallacy Definition Example
1. Red Herring Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue, particularly by relating the issue to a common fear So-called “safe” injection sites in our neighbourhood will mean that more dealers will set up shop, too, leading to more crime.
2. Straw Man A weak argument set up to be easily refuted, distracting attention from stronger arguments Safe injection sites will increase illegal drug use because it’ll make those drugs easier to access, defeating the purpose of “harm reduction.”
3. Begging the Question Claiming the truth of the very matter in question, as if it were already an obvious conclusion Safe injection sites won’t save anybody because addicts will continue to overdose with or without them.
4. Circular Argument A proposition is used to prove itself, assuming the very thing it aims to prove (related to begging the question) Once a junkie, always a junkie. No “harm reduction” approach will solve the opioid crisis.
5. Bandwagon (a.k.a. Ad Populum) Appeals to a common belief of some people, often prejudicial, and states everyone holds this belief No one wants a safe injection site in their neighbourhood because they don’t care that much about the welfare of junkie criminals.
6. Ad Hominem Stating that someone’s argument is wrong solely because of something about them rather than about the argument itself The safe injection site advocate is a junkie himself. How can we trust him on issues of safety when every junkie lies as a matter of habit?
7. Non Sequitur The conclusion does not follow from the premises Since this whole obsession with being politically correct began 30 years ago, people now think that even addicts are worthy of respect.
8. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Establish a cause-and-effect relationship where only a correlation exists The rise of liberal attitudes since the 1960s has led to higher rates of incarceration across the country.

Figure 14.2 | Logical Fallacies to Avoid

Avoiding such false logic helps strengthen your own argument by compelling you to stay within the bounds of sound argumentative strategies.


The quality of any workplace culture depends on the ethical conduct of its leadership and employees, with everyone treating one another with respect and speaking responsibly.

End of Chapter Activities

14a. Thinking About the Content

What are your key takeaways from this chapter? What is something you have learned or something you would like to add from your experience?

14b. Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

1. First, think of someone who exemplifies everything you aspire to be in terms of their good behaviour in the workplace (loosely defined as anywhere someone does work—not necessarily where it’s compensated with money). List the qualities and actions that make them such a good, well-liked model for behaviour. Second, think of someone who exemplifies everything you aspire to avoid in terms of their misconduct in the workplace. List the qualities and typical misbehaviour that make them so detestable.

2. Research and explain good dining etiquette or how to dress for success in the workplace with clear recommendations for how your audience should conduct themselves.

3. Have you ever experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in a workplace or institution (e.g., at school) according to the definition and examples given in the chapter? What happened and what did you do about it? Would you do anything differently in hindsight?

4. Find an example of advertising that is unethical because it relies on logical fallacies and other deceptive techniques explored in this chapter. Identify the fallacies or techniques and speculate on why the advertiser used them. Outline a more honest—yet still effective—advertisement for the same product or service.

14c. Applying chapter concepts to a situation

Working with Unprofessional Colleagues

Maria recently started her internship at a small architecture firm with only six employees. During her interview, the hiring manager emphasized that the team at the company is like a family, and they are looking for someone who would be a good fit in the company’s culture. This is a selling point for Maria, and she is excited to start her new professional journey and meet her colleagues.

Upon meeting the other employees, Maria agrees that they are a close-knit group. She also thinks that they are amicable and helpful. Maria feels valued and respected, so she hopes to get a permanent job with the company. However, there is one thing that bothers Maria. She has a colleague, Piyush, who always swears in the office. Everyone else laughs when he does it, but his lack of professionalism makes her uncomfortable.

Maria dreads going to work when she is scheduled to work with Piyush. She fears addressing the problem because she does not want to ruin the easygoing work atmosphere. She wonders if it is best to leave the company after her six-month internship is finished instead of staying long-term. She battles with this decision as she likes working at the company, and the benefits are unmatched.

What should Maria do?

14d. Writing Activity

Read this article from LinkedIn on Nine Golden Rules to Professional Ethics in the Workplace. Summarize the rules. What other rules do you think are important based on your professional or academic experience?


This chapter contains information from Business Communication for Success which is adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative and Communication at Work by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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