The Ethics in Technical Writing

Subtlety may deceive you; integrity never will. – Oliver Cromwell

This is a strange post for me to write and yet it is one I have thought about writing on and off for many years. Each time a company or individual crosses the line to try to take from another company what should be earned, I am tempted. Each time, I resist.

Years ago, a company approached its competitors’ writers with offers of work. This may not be something my company would do, but it is certainly not unethical. Some might even call it good business. During the interview process, the fishing began. Tell us, the company asked, who did you work with? What are the names of the contact people? I was lucky. My writer was smart enough to see the fish and explain these were WritePoint clients. Another company’s writer was not so quick to see the tactic.

The company didn’t hire the writer, but they did use the information. They contacted the customer and offered their services at a rate that was approximately 50% lower than the going rate. What could the company do? How could it justify paying 50% more? The CFO called the writing company they had been using for years. In the end, the writing company was able to keep its client, but it was forced to cut its rate below market value just to keep its writers working. Legal? Perhaps. Ethical? Not by a long shot.

A few days ago, a competitor called me. We have competed for years and yet we remain friends. I have never tried to take a client from them; they have never tried to take a client from me. We will both send writers for a job, and honestly and truthfully, be happy if either company lands the job. My competitor, my friend, was very upset. I have decided to name names here and so I will say that my friend is the well respected Miriam Lottner, her company, Tech Tav.

Miriam was very upset – a mutual competitor, a company that is not very active on Techshoret or any forums that share knowledge and expertise, but one that has been around for many years, has taken a Google Ad and used her company name to try to divert visitors from Tech Tav to their site. Visitors would search for “tech tav” and be directed to this other website when they click on the sponsored ad that comes up. Legal? Perhaps. Ethical? Not by a long shot.

<The image that was here (showing one of the offending advertisements), has been removed under threat of a 640,000 NIS lawsuit. In removing it, I have yielded to the concept of doing what is smart, against the concept of doing what is right.>

Today, I got an email from Barbara Sher. In my earliest days of technical writing back in the early 1990s, the name of Barbara Sher was well known and respected. That has not changed in all these years. She was very upset. A competitor had done something to her, she wrote, and to me. Sure enough, it was the same.

<The image that was here (showing one of the offending advertisements), has been removed under threat of a 640,000 NIS lawsuit. In removing it, I have yielded to the concept of doing what is smart, against the concept of doing what is right.>


<The image that was here (showing one of the offending advertisements), has been removed under threat of a 640,000 NIS lawsuit. In removing it, I have yielded to the concept of doing what is smart, against the concept of doing what is right.>


This competitor has registered her personal name and that of her company. Google “Barbara Sher” in Hebrew or “docustar” and you will find an ad leading you to this other company’s website. Google “Paula Stern” in Hebrew (and with an aleph) or Google “writepoint” and again, this company’s sponsored as link is there. Legal? Perhaps. Ethical? Not by a long shot.

<The image that was here (showing one of the offending advertisements), has been removed under threat of a 640,000 NIS lawsuit. In removing it, I have yielded to the concept of doing what is smart, against the concept of doing what is right.>

<The image that was here (showing one of the offending advertisements), has been removed under threat of a 640,000 NIS lawsuit. In removing it, I have yielded to the concept of doing what is smart, against the concept of doing what is right.>


It is interesting to me that I was less upset than Barbara or Miriam. Perhaps this is because I learned of this perfidy already knowing I was being targeted among Israel’s finest companies, rather than thinking I was being alone. In some sick way, this may actually be a compliment.

Of course, it is also a twisted sort of logic – what they can’t earn honestly, it seems, must be taken by deceit. And so, Israel’s hi-tech companies have now officially been challenged.

Google runs by the law in allowing or not allowing the placing of an advertisement. One can only hope that Israel’s high-tech industry holds itself to a higher standard. You can go with a company that has not broken any laws in the strictest sense of the word. But wouldn’t you rather go with a company that is ethical?

If they would act questionably against their competitors to try to gain your business, should you expect them to be ethical with the work you might give them?

Are you sure you can trust them with your business secrets?

I wouldn’t.

11 thoughts on “The Ethics in Technical Writing”

  1. Thank you. Excellent article on a developing ethical problem well-written and compelling. Dr Gary K; Writer

  2. A company name is a trademark, so I am not sure it is legal to use it in a ad as has been done here. This is something to take up with a lawyer. At the very least the offender may be forced to take down the ads.

    1. Leah,
      I checked with Google when it was first brought to my attention. Our trademark is on Tech-Tav and since they specifically spelled it tech TAV, it does not “violate” trademark. So while Google agreed with me that it was underhanded, they could not take it down.
      I think the distinction of trying to fool people v. trying to fairly advertise your business is an important one. Life is competitive and we have no choice but to compete, but I refuse to “compete” like Tiud. Their intention with these ads was to deceive people searching for a specific name or brand or company. As Paula already said, why would anyone want to work with people like that?
      Miriam Lottner
      Tech-Tav

  3. Paula,

    Dirty pool, no question.

    But notice that JBS did the same thing to Tiud, and Docustar did the same to JBS, at least according to the Google searches I did. Maybe it’s time to take off the gloves and do it back to Tiud.

  4. Hi Shmuel,

    We noticed what you are saying right away, but there is a twist. What JBS and apparently Docustar (though I haven’t seen this one) did, was put their competitor’s names in as their keywords. That I would call, perhaps, dirty pool. Someone who notices it may want to think twice about the ethics involved, but I’m not sure it crosses any lines. One could say – perhaps they thought that people searching for JBS or Docustar might also be interested in their services.

    I don’t do it with WritePoint because I’m not willing to get close to that line in the sand. What TIUD did was much worse than dirty pool because their intention was to deceive. They are saying “writepoint” not as a keyword, but as a name. Click on the name and instead of getting WritePoint as expected, you get to TIUD. Maybe you close the website in anger, or maybe you read on.

    If you close it, they haven’t lost anything in the first place, so goes the warped thinking, because it was an attempt to grab WritePoint’s traffic and it failed. But if they succeed? Wow, aren’t they grand?

    One is on the edge of ethical and you could argue that maybe their intention wasn’t to steal my traffic but to add value to a search. I’m not sure I agree with myself but we discussed this at WritePoint and among the Techshoret moderators and this is where we found an acceptable line.

    TIUD intentionally put my personal name and company name; intentionally took Barbara Sher’s name and company, intentionally took tech TAV (spelling it that way to get around issues of trademark) and according to Google, they will let it slide.

    I do not believe we as a community can let this slide. I have taken off the gloves in writing this post and exposing what others are doing. The “do it back to Tiud” isn’t my job – but it might be the job of some documentation manager next time he posts an outsourcing job and looks who applies.

    Remember that when you bring in a technical writing company, you are trusting them with the secrets of your technology and your corporate planning. Do you want to give this priceless information and trust to companies that place themselves at the line and often beyond it? Would you rather search for a company you have heard of and investigate what they can offer you?

    I’ve gone out on a limb. I’ve named names. I have never in my life suffered injustice easily or quietly. It is, I truly believe, one of my greatest flaws. As I wrote in my post – what TIUD did might be legal in the strictest sense of the law and I have no doubt that none of us are interested in a long legal battle. But what they did was most definitely not ethical – “dirty pool” and beyond.

    It is now up to the technical writing community to decide whether that behavior should be rewarded, punished, or ignored.

  5. Hi Shmuel,
    I don’t see any evidence at all that Docustar did this–I ran a bunch of searches when this business came to light.
    I’d be curious to know how you found evidence of this.
    Cara

  6. Paula, props for doing the brave thing here in bringing this behaviour out into the light of day.

    This is not just an issue for the technical writing community. One would assume that this is also a question of that most fragile of commodities “trust” for the companies that need to trust their intellectual property to a 3rd Party.

    Here’s hoping Google will stick to their “do no evil/ harm” and remove these ads, returning the brands to their rightful owners and away from these digital brigands.

  7. הודות לברברה הבנתי שיצרתי התרגשות מה בביצה שנקראת כתיבה טכנית.
    שוב הודות לפנייתה המנומסת והחייכנית של ברברה מסע פרסום מתחרים הוסר – גם שמך הוסר.

    לגבי הבלוג שלך – אני קורא בעיקר את הדעות הלוחמניות, ציוניות במאבקך למען תדמיתה של ישראל ואני מעריך עבותדך.
    שומר את זכות התגובה לפעם אחרת בנושא שיהיה לי קל יותר להשיב אש

    שבוע טוב,

    צחי עקנין
    מנכ”ל
    תיעוד בע”מ
    tzachi.aknin@gmail.com
    נייד 0544236604
    משרד 035233226
    פקס 035233227
    כתובת : הירקון 145, תל אביב 52345
    http://www.tiud.com

    1. Hi Tzachi,

      I’m having a little trouble here understanding what you are writing, what you are returning fire for (or reserving the right for later) and certainly have no concept of what Zionism has to do with anything. Let me clarify – your company choose to do something that I believe is completely unethical with a marginal question about legality. You took my personal name and that of my company (and two other people and two other companies with which you compete) and attempted to redirect traffic and potential projects from their site to you and when called on this behavior…you removed them.

      Okay, I’m glad you removed them and am only sorry that you had to be asked to stop doing something clearly viewed by all as wrong. I have no idea what “מגרש” [field] you are talking about but if it stops the abuse of my corporate name and personal name, I’m happy for it.

      I do not believe such behavior should be rewarded and I believe it proper to publicize it. You don’t “accidentally” enter such information – rather, it has to be part of a planned publicity campaign. I am in the process of writing an updated blog post about another unethical abuse in our industry – stay tuned.

      I continue to believe that only by reporting such actions can we hope to stop such behavior.

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