I recently enjoyed the privilege of hearing Nigel Barley, an anthropologist with the British Museum, give a wide-ranging talk about the importance of non-communication.

Yes, that’s right. With all the emphasis on swifter communication, better communication, error-free communication, and the rest of it, Barley spoke about how good communication can mess up a perfectly good situation.

For example, the British East India Company embodied the British Empire for centuries. According to Barley, the home office finally collected and tabulated the accounts from all of its far-flung field operations (sound familiar?) in the mid-1800s. Like Wiley Coyote running off a cliff but not falling until he looks down, the directors discovered their company had been bankrupt for more than 200 years.

My own recent communications with InfoWorld’s readers — four columns on how to motivate employees — led some correspondents to conclude that I’m morally bankrupt.

Readers expressed concern in three areas: 1) using fear, greed, and other “negative” emotions is unethical — managers should appeal to employees’ better natures; 2) when managers analytically decide how to motivate employees they’re being manipulative, which is also unethical; and 3) I’m endorsing situational ethics, and that encourages unethical behavior, too.

A profound discovery of modern management theory is that managerial ethics matter to employees, and they matter a lot. This has been a major revelation to a generation of business leaders who previously figured morality belonged in the home and that including ethics in business decisions was somehow immature and idealistic. (Yes, I know there’s a difference between ethics and morals; it’s subtle enough to ignore in this discussion.)

Ethics matter. They matter from the perspective of self-respect, they matter from the perspective of employees trusting you enough to follow your lead, and they matter from the perspective of business success, because in today’s competitive labor market success depends on the talent you can attract and retain. The best talent will abandon you without regret if you reveal yourself to be an immoral weasel.

Ethics isn’t, however, reducible to a simple formula. If it were, philosophers would have long ago tired of the subject. It is, instead, both complex and highly personal. So here’s my personal perspective on the issues you’ve raised.

Last point first: I do believe ethics are situational. So does our legal system, which, for example, accepts self-defense as justification for killing someone. Opinion: How you motivate an employee (instilling fear of unemployment) has less impact on the ethics of an action than does your intent (wanting to save his job).

Issue No. 2: Manipulation? My own opinion is that honesty and intent differentiate motivating employees from manipulating them.

Look at it this way: You’re responsible for successfully achieving the mission of your organization. You can’t succeed in this with unmotivated employees. As a manager, you have an impact on employee motivation. You have to decide whether you’re going to do it consciously, through analysis and planning, or whether you’re going to rely on your instincts being good enough to do the job.

Issue #1: Appealing to negative emotions … what’s a negative emotion? Fear? Anger? Both are important to your survival.

Instilling fear is, in my mind, completely ethical if the employee legitimately has something to be afraid of, such as becoming unemployed due to poor performance. Failing to instill fear when there’s something to be afraid of — failing to create a gut-level understanding of the consequences — is as unethical from where I sit as letting a drunk friend drive.

Bullying employees — an act of self-indulgence, not motivation — is entirely different, and always a bad idea.

Humans aren’t Vulcans. Emotions drive human behavior. That’s reality. When managers and executives make decisions based on wishful thinking instead of reality, they make the right choices by accident when they make them at all.

A joke that’s far too crude and disgusting to tell in this column has the punch line, “Because it can.”

That, of course, is the explanation for a lot of behavior that otherwise would be too crude, disgusting, or otherwise unbelievable to otherwise account for.

A reader I’ll call “Jim” because that isn’t his name relates the following. I’ve removed his employer’s name and made minor edits for length. Jim has given me full permission to relate the specifics, understanding that his employer will easily recognize itself and him. I’ve e-mailed his employer asking for its account; so far I’ve received no response.

“Just recently, I forwarded a joke through the company e-mail system to three coworkers and one equivalent project employee from a “sister” company. One of them forwarded the joke to an employee in Human Resources.”

“I made a bee-line to that HR employee and apologized for the incident. She accepted my apology and told me she thought it was funny. I was pulled aside by another HR staff member who asked me to sign a fair warning agreement confirming that I understood the proper usage of the company’s e-mail system, and further occurrences of inappropriate use of company e-mail would result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

“Okay, fine. So, I signed the agreement. I went directly back to my workstation and deleted all personal e-mail, and warned others to do the same. Case closed, right? Wrong.”

“The following day I received a call from a manager in HR telling me that not only did I disrupt relations between the firm and our sister company by sending this joke via e-mail, but also that this was a fatal flaw in my employment with the firm.”

“I asked my boss to hold my hand while I met with HR the second time around. Despite his presence I was awarded a one-week suspension without pay as the penalty for my crime. I felt belittled. What was I going to tell my wife staying home with our newborn? ‘I’m sorry, honey, no food on the table for a week because I forwarded a joke at work.'”

“My boss, by the way, didn’t say the one thing that might have impressed me. The irony is that he sent me the joke in the first place. I removed his name as the originator of the e-mail to protect his anonymity. To this day, HR does not know who sent me the joke, though I’m really not sure if it mattered.”

“The joke itself: a simple dialogue box application that read, ‘For your Annual Bonus, Click OK’. As the cursor moved toward OK, the OK button moved farther and farther away until it disappeared from the dialogue box. Funny, eh?”

Jim’s employer clearly acted within its legal rights in handing him his suspension. As noted in a recent column, in most organizations HR’s unstated mission is to keep the company out of court, and Jim confirmed with counsel that he has no basis for filing a complaint.

I don’t want to beat on HR. I doubt HR formulated the e-mail policy Jim violated. Its rigid enforcement may not be by choice either.

Here’s what I do know: right now it’s an employee’s job market. Any IS professional who isn’t a complete loser can find new employment quickly and easily, and probably for an increase in pay. And it costs a whole lot more to replace an employee than to preserve one you have, both in overt and opportunity costs.

Here’s something else I know: if you want high-performing “human resources” you need strong morale, high levels of trust, and employees who are comfortable working with each other. Swapping jokes helps that happen; punishing joke-telling kills it, regardless of the joke transmission medium.

And here’s something I’m sure of: If I suspended someone with a newborn at home for a week without pay for e-mailing an inoffensive joke to three friends, my mother would rise from her grave to ask me, in pointed terms, if this is how she raised me.