Memos, Efficiency, & Human Decency: The Battle of Two Ethics

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

As someone who grades memos in technical communication classes, I often find myself asking: Is the grammar correct? Is the information accessible? Is it organized and readable? If I answer yes to these questions, I could say that the memo is not only effectively written but also follows what technical communication scholar Stephen Katz would describe as the “ethic of expediency.” But can a memo be ethical in how efficiently it conveys information but unethical in how it impacts human lives? Is it important for information – and technology – to be both efficient and decent?

I can’t help but think of Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space when Bill Lumbergh (played to perfection by Gary Cole) leans into Peter Gibbons’ cubicle to chastise him about forgetting to follow the new company policy of putting a cover letter on a TPS report. “Did you see the memo about this?” Lumberg asks in a cringey, monotone drawl. He blatantly disregards Peter’s apology and reasonable plan to fix the error, instead telling Peter that he’ll send him the memo again – even though Peter has it right in front of him. 


As a dark comedy, Office Space makes us laugh with its relatability and only slightly exaggerated representation of a stifling work environment where efficiency is valued over human decency. History brings us some much darker examples, sans the comedy.