Ethical HR – courageous or foolhardy?…


April 16th, 2014

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See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.... Or?....

“Should HR and people practice sit in isolation, or if it is integral to a company culture, ethos and purpose, should we not take that into account too?”

Neil Morrison’s question is a good one. It comes at the end of a post in which he considered whether ‘bad’ companies can do ‘good’ work, and poses a serious challenge for HR, and OD, practice and practitioners. Our own Management Agenda 2014 research revealed surprisingly high levels of misconduct and a reluctance to report it to the relevant person or authority, and echoes much of the existing research on the challenges facing those considering whether to become whistleblowers or not.

I suspect many of us like to think we have integrity and, when push comes to shove, will say or do ‘the right thing’. This may come coupled with a belief that our own ethical standards are high, even if we never actually engage in a conversation with others in our organisation about what they are, and how they might be the same and different to those around us, our leaders or the organisation as a whole. The problem is, there is a lack of honesty and rigour in the conversation about ethics in organisational contexts.

Ethical means good: discuss

A while ago, I sat in on a webinar that considered whether HR can create an ethical business culture, particularly in the context of the financial sector. Nested in some stats and opinions, was an assumption that seems to get made often when the word ‘ethical’ is used: it is coupled with notions of good or moral behaviour and/or values, in some respects understandably. This webinar was no exception, and I asked for the speaker’s definition. This was her response:

“Ethics is not regulations. And that is very key. Something that can be legal or within regulations might not actually be ethical. One of the ways we sometimes talk about it is if your mother asked whether you would do it, would you be able to look her in the eye and say yes. This is more about doing the right thing for your stakeholders within your business. This is much more about putting the interests of your clients ahead of your own or those of your organisation…This isn’t just about following the law, it is about doing right”

I have a number of problems with the above, the main ones being:

  1. There is an assumption that mothers are the ultimate arbiters of ethical behaviour (why not fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, postmen or shepherds?), and that all mothers are equal when it comes to their ethical standpoints – can we assume that the mothers of Ghandi, Hitler and Pol Pot held similar ethical positions? And to push an unpleasant train of thought a little further, Rosemary West was also a mother…
  2. Ethics is about ‘doing the right thing’. Is there a universal, agreed definition of the ‘right thing’? I could pick any number of examples, but to limit myself to two, one social (gay marriage) and another in a business context (zero hour contracts), both of which I hear discussed in terms of their ethics and rightness, depending on the speakers’ moral position. As  Trevino & Brown argue: “Moral judgment focuses on deciding what’s right—not necessarily doing what is right”.
  3. ‘Doing right’ is about meeting the needs of stakeholders of your business, specifically clients. I am curious at the lack of mention for communities, or the environment, as two further types of stakeholders.

Back to basics

Let’s define what we mean by ethical. The Oxford On-line Dictionary offers us: “Ethical: Relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.”

It is important to be explicit about principles when discussing ethics. For example, I am not arguing that e.g. the environment must be taken into account in order for an organisation to have a valid ethical position. I am saying that whether it is or is not included points to the type of ethics, and a set of underlying moral principles, which in and of themselves are neither good nor bad.

Because whilst it is true many of our synonyms for ‘ethical’ are about goodness, rightness, decency etc., the word gets bandied around rarely with either a clear definition of associated values and behaviours, or clarity as to what might be appropriate outcomes as a result of that.

Which brings me back to HR, and indeed OD, for both have crucial roles in relation to what behaviours an organisation might wish to address or introduce.  Trevin & Brown talk about the organisational context as adding a layer of complexity to ethical decision making, such that “even when people make the right decision, they may find it difficult to follow through and do what is right.” You only have to scan the stories and case studies on websites such as Public Concern at Work to get a sense of the risks that those who do feel moved to challenge behaviour or practices in their organisations face.Whistleblower crop

The nub of the challenge for HR and OD is that being ethical is not simple, for human beings in general, let alone one or two departments tasked with being the moral conscience of an organisation. The “ethical decision making process involves multiple stages that are fraught with complications and contextual pressures”, note Trevin & Brown, and the influence of peers and leaders behaviour, and the consequences – real or imagined – of acting and or speaking out relative to an ethical issue, are significant factors.

It is into this space that the ethically minded, courageous – or foolhardy depending on your point of view – HR/OD professional walks. I cannot tell you what you should do. What might be a useful starting point, is to consider and answer the following questions, for yourself:

  • What are your ethics? Specifically, what do you consider to be ethical and unethical, in general and in your organisational context? What principles underpin this?
  • How close to or far from those of your organisation, and its leaders, are they, both in espoused and lived terms?
  • Are you willing to behave/act in a different way to live a different set of ethical principles to those at play, and live with the consequences?
  • How willing are you to model behaviours that legitimize the challenge and open/honest conversation?
  • And If you are not, what does that do to change, if anything, your understanding of your own moral and ethical principles?

Steve Hearsum and Alex Swarbrick will be presenting a Topic Taster session called HR and Business Ethics – HR and OD’s Influence on Ethical Leadership at the CIPD’s Learning and Development Show on Thursday 1 May 2014 at 1pm.