Ask the HR agony aunt... Unearthing illicit behaviour

Here are some real-life dilemmas faced by HR directors we spoke to, and the advice from others in the profession

"A manager was off sick and there was an important document that we needed in his emails. Only he had access to it and he refused to give us his email password. We overrode his refusal and got the document. However, once in his inbox we discovered evidence of gross misconduct on his part. We stumbled across this gross misconduct while doing something unethical ourselves. So should we act on it?"

What’s black and white here, believes Unicef UK’s chief people officer Claire Fox, is that work email is work property so employers have every right to access it. “Therefore if you come across information that points to gross misconduct you go through the normal channels and decide an outcome after a fair investigation,” she says.

It’s a sentiment shared by British Council’s director HR, global network Ian Williams: “Once you see something you can’t unsee it.”

Where the grey area comes in, however, is if HR doesn’t have policies around email access. “If your IT and HR policies don’t line up then that’s where you have dilemmas,” Williams explains. “That builds different expectations among employees.”

Managing employee expectations is just one part of the picture though. Some question the invasion of employees’ privacy.

“They’ve actively gone against the employee’s wishes,” says Carrie Birmingham Consult’s founder Carrie Birmingham, who believes HR’s own ethically-dubious behaviour could have far-reaching long-term ramifications. She raises concerns of a Big Brother scenario where the employer is checking up on its workforce. “Are you happy with other people knowing you’ve done that?” questions Birmingham, suggesting HR professionals ask themselves if they’d be comfortable with their behaviour making newspaper headlines.

HR Hero for Hire’s founder Shakil Butt agrees HR should “hold up its hands and take responsibility for how [it] came across the information”.

“All of us are prone to mistakes and do things that another person might consider unethical,” he says. “Take ownership of what you’ve done – you must allow others to hold you to task otherwise you’ll lose credibility.”

Charles Stanley’s HRD Kate Griffiths-Lambeth points to a similar experience when, upon accessing the emails of two employees, it came to light that they “were deliberately plotting to make the workplace untenable for another individual”. HR investigated and parted ways with them, but not without “a breakdown of trust” among the remaining workforce due to how the information was gathered.

Communicating the action HR took was key to regaining trust. “I couldn’t tell [everyone] all about the messages as that would have been more damaging. But I did the best I could to calm the situation,” she says.

Beyond this, Griffiths-Lambeth says HR needs to hold a mirror up to the organisation itself to determine why such behaviour happened in the first place. “We had a lengthy heart to heart [with the perpetrators] on what drove them to behave in that manner and we as an organisation learnt from it and changed things,” she says. “Yes what they wrote was terrible. But they also felt marginalised and miserable.”

There’s always two sides to every story, Griffiths-Lambeth points out. And HR must listen to both sides as it also has a duty of care to the employees exhibiting bad behaviour.

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

Further reading

Ethics and HR

Ask the HR agony aunt... Redundancies and personal situations

Trust is the foundation of business

What HR can do about a post-truth workplace