Rules of Business Communication

Rules provide a guide for individuals’ behavior and a means by which to predict the behavior of others, and they are a vital part of the social contracts that exist among individuals and between the individual and the group. According to Geertz (1973, cited in Schall 1983), culture can be described by listing a set of rules systematically, which if followed can enable one to pass for a native.

One definition of culture describes it in terms of “sets of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluation, communicating and acting; those who share a set of cultural rules of social conduct, share a culture” (Goodenough, cited in Schall, 1983, p 558). Knowledge of rules is an essential step for successful interaction within a culture. The task of identifying general rules of business communication is a complex one, given that “organizational culture is characterized by universality and uniqueness” (Schall, 1983).

A recent paper on the philosophical foundations of business ethics by Dresp-Langley (2009) considers ethical business communication from a social contract theory position, and seeks to identify a set of universally accepted ground rules for ethical communication in modern business contexts. Dresp-Langley proposes an extension of the social contract in the form of a contract for business communication, complete with ten ground rules, which are binding for all participants.

Violations of these clauses may have results which impact on the satisfaction of the participants at the outcome of the communication event (e.g. meeting) – see figure 1. [pic] Figure 1: The Communication Contract. Source: Dresp-Langley, 2009, p420) 1. Sincerity – all partners should communicate information honestly and to the best of their knowledge, and not deliberately falsify, omit or otherwise distort information that is relevant to the interaction. Breaches of the sincerity clause can generate complications based on incomplete or inaccurate information in the short term and severely damage the relationship between the partners in the long term. 2. Relevance – partners should speak with relevance to the topics and goals of the communication context.

An obvious example of the relevance clause is the need for participants to respect the agenda of a meeting. Breaches of this clause would affect an individual’s ability to prepare and concentrate for the duration of the meeting, and create a feeling of being ‘taken by surprise’ or ‘caught off-guard’. 3. Continuity – communication should follow a cohesive pattern where participants take into account what others have said and respond, and where individuals do not suddenly express themselves spontaneously and out of context, whatever their whims. Breaches of this clause have a similar effect to the previous one.

4. Clarity – partners should express themselves as precisely and explicitly as possible. This includes avoidance of jargon with partners who do not use it. This clause encourages younger or inexperienced partners to ask questions and clarify their understanding. In a more diverse workplace, this clause also covers communication with colleagues in a foreign language, and so the choice of language, style and appropriateness are critical. Breaches of this clause would cause misunderstanding in the short term, and could potentially result in the exclusion of some partners in the long term. 5.

Prudence – communicators should not handle information carelessly, and must always be aware of the consequences of speech acts. This refers to the sensitive and tactful handling of information, or the careful examination of the reliability of information before it is expressed as fact. Breaches of the prudence clause may have unintended effects on partners, for instance causing offence inadvertently. 6. Tolerance – partners should not ignore or dismiss comments which are expressed sincerely and are potentially constructive, even if expressed in a non-conventional or seemingly naive way, or by a younger or less experienced partner.

Breaches of this clause could result in the contributions of some partners going unnoticed, and in the long term relationships could be damaged by feelings of inequality. 7. Openness – all partners should be open to suggestions and ideas from all other partners. This helps to create an environment where disagreements may be accepted gracefully and where the communication of innovative ideas may be allowed to take place. Breaches of this clause have similar consequences to the previous one.

In addition, an organization where this clause is frequently violated will be ‘blinkered’ to innovation and new ideas, and so may suffer in the long term. 8. Prompt resolution – conflicts and misunderstandings should be dealt with promptly and openly, in an effort to restore constructive and mutually beneficial communication as soon as possible. It this clause is repeatedly violated, conflicts will become suppressed and may fester until frustrations reach a boiling point, at which the destructive effects of the conflict are significantly worse.

9. Balanced speech times – partners agree to share speaking time in a fair and even way, to allow each member the opportunity to make their contribution. This avoids the dominance of the communication by one particular member. This clause is breached when one member is allowed to monopolize the communication, at the expense of more equal participation. 10. Optimal timing – in modern business environments, time is valuable, and so this clause involves efficient use of meeting time and respect for the time of all participants.

In addition to being inefficient, and therefore poor business practice, violation of this clause in the form of time wasting is also regarded as unethical. Using discourse analysis of internal company meetings, Dresp-Langley goes on to identify various violations which are typical of conversational dominance. In her study, senior partners appear to violate the balanced-speech time clause, the openness clause and the tolerance clause by frequently interrupting junior participants and hogging the speech time for themselves.

In addition, male members of the groups show dominant communication patterns through their violation of many of these clauses, and this creates feelings of inequality in the female members of the workgroup.

Such violations are not uncommon, and yet may have serious results. Within company culture, the contributions of the junior members may go unnoticed, as the loudest members push their ideas, and this can cost the company in missed opportunities. In workplaces with diversity (gender, age, race, etc), violation of these ethics may reveal deeper prejudices – for instance, persistent violation of the tolerance clause to the exclusion of one particular minority group may indicate deeper prejudice. In non-business contexts, the consequences may be even more serious, as shown by Babcock et al (1993), who showed a correlation between conversational dominance and domestic violence in family environments.

As a practical example, let us consider The Villa s. r. o. , a small owner-managed language school of which I am co-founder and co-director. We provide on-site language training courses to individuals and groups, focusing on two pillars – business clientele and schools/kindergartens.

Operating in the Czech Republic, the greatest language in demand is English and the majority of students are Czech. We have a team of 7 native English speaking teachers, with varying levels of Czech. Here are two examples of communication problems, considered in terms of the communication contract. These examples illuminate how the clauses of the communication contract can be applied in a real-life example. Problem I – Transparent Communication: Management believes that customer feedback about satisfaction with teacher performance is highly valuable to improving quality of service.

Comments received from clients, usually by email, were immediately translated to English and relayed to the respective teacher, without moderation or censorship. This approach caused problems in that teachers felt that their work was being judged by management without lesson observations. They felt as if management were ‘checking up’ on their performance, and this damaged trust between management and teachers. Diagnosis: This appears to have been a breach of the Prudence clause. In trying to be sincere and honest, management failed to see that such feedback would be taken personally by teachers.

Management should have been more sensitive to the consequences of the feedback. Solution: Feedback should be gathered and compiled into a report which would be delivered to a teacher as part of an overall appraisal, following lesson observations. This should be done face to face, with the teacher given the opportunity to respond. More urgent messages from students should be moderated by management, and delivered to the teacher more sensitively, and by another speaker of their native language – thus avoiding problems of (mis)translation.

Problem 2 – Efficient communication with Clients: Teachers are given the contact details of their students in order to contact them in the event of any last minute complication. It was believed that this enabled the fastest and thus most efficient communication with clients. However, teachers are often unable to communicate with clients in their native language, and so the clients were forced to take telephone calls in English. On occasion, this created a negative impression with the client, and damaged the relationship between the school and the client. Diagnosis: the fastest method of communication is not always the most efficient.

Management sought to fulfill the prompt resolution clause by having the client informed as soon as possible. But, by using English phone calls with the teacher, it is a breach of the Clarity clause, as the client is placed in a weaker position during the phone call due to the language barrier. Solution: the relationship between client and school should be treated separately and independently from the relationship between student and teacher. Such communications are in the client/school domain, and so need to be communicated, in Czech, between school administration and the client.

Whether or not this proposed communication contract provides an exhaustive list of universal business communication ethics is debatable – and the concept of the communication contract will surely inspire lively debate to come. Are the rules prescriptive or descriptive? How are they different within and between businesses? What sanctions may be reasonably applied when rules are broken? For now, the communication contract provides some basic guidelines for communication rules, and awareness of these can contribute significantly to improved, or at least more reflective, organizational communication.

References Babcock, J. , & Waltz, J. (1993). Power and violence: The relation between communication patterns, power discrepancies, and.. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 40. Dresp-Langley, B. , (2009) The Communication Contract and Its Ten Ground Clauses. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 87 Issue 3, p415-436 Schall, M. S. , (1983) A Communication-Rules Approach to Organizational Culture. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28 Issue 4, p557-581.