Ethics and HR

There’s no such thing as a black and white ethical dilemma. So how can HR practitioners develop their personal ethics so they can help their organisations navigate the grey areas?

“The human race needs to change the way it lives, and the way in which it does business is an important part of that. If we don’t change the human race won’t be fine. I don’t mean to be all Armageddon but that is the truth and people are slowly starting to realise this.” So says Claire Fox, chief people officer at Unicef UK.

Her apocalyptic warning may seem unusually profound for an HR leader. But turn to recent headlines and you’ll be spoilt for choice with examples of unethical behaviour.

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There’s been the financial crisis, Carillion’s collapse, Persimmon’s boss’ disproportionate bonus, the VW emissions scandal, #MeToo… need we go on?

But in almost all of these scandals the damaging behaviours weren’t illegal, points out Gary Cookson, founder and director of EPIC HR and former associate HRD at the Disclosure and Barring Service.

“Go back to the financial crisis and the things bankers were doing were perfectly legal. They weren’t breaking any laws but it caused the recession and did a lot of harm to society,” he says.

Employers are waking up, then, to the idea that there are gaps in the law’s definition of right and wrong. Such gaps are where ethics come in, and many are looking to HR to fill them.

Indeed when the CIPD launched its new profession map at the end of 2018, setting out the knowledge, behaviours and values underpinning HR, it added ‘ethical practice’ to its core behaviours for the first time.

The body’s membership director David D’Souza explains the rationale: “One of the historical accusations of HR is that it’s too procedurally focused. So this is an opportunity for us to be really clear that in every interaction and decision we’re expecting people to reflect what’s the right thing to do – not just do the basic expectation of them.”

But what does ethics really mean? And how can HR develop its capability here?

The answers are anything but clear cut. For co-director of the International Center for Ethics in Business at Kansas University Richard DeGeorge, business ethics is “simply treating people with respect and considering everybody who might be affected by one’s own actions”.

“Most people get a sense of ethics from being raised by their family, from society and their surroundings, that’s what we call conventional ethics – things like don’t steal, don’t kill people. Then when put into an HR-specific business context it’s how you translate these general norms and apply them to your work.”

D’Souza says the CIPD has defined ethical behaviour as “weighing up the short-term and long-term impact of your decision-making and reflecting on what that means for the different stakeholder groups you serve”. So this could be thinking about the impact of a large-scale redundancy programme on the local community, or the effect of fair-hiring offers on employees, he reports.

Grey matter

The whole point is that ethics aren’t black and white. “It’s a woolly area – you and I would have a different view on what the ethically-sound decision is,” says Cookson.

“Ethics plays in the grey world so you have to make a choice between two things. One might seem more right than the other but still might not be the ideal solution. You might be faced with two difficult choices and have to choose the least wrong thing based on your values,” says Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics.

Which means the really important areas for HR to get to grips with don’t necessarily concern the headline-grabbing instances of bad behaviour outlined above, D’Souza explains. There’s a key difference, he adds, between macro-level ethical issues in organisations and the micro-level ethical dilemmas HR faces on a daily basis.

While there’s a tendency to focus on the big picture stories of toxic behaviour, “cases like bullying and sexual harassment aren’t ethical dilemmas in themselves because you’d hope it’s cut and dried that we have an obligation to take action. There should be no question how much bullying you allow in an organisation – that’s zero tolerance,” he says.

“Often the extent you push to change those behaviours and how is the challenge, but it’s not a dilemma over what’s right and wrong.”

Ethical dilemmas arise, D’Souza explains, in complex situations where there are multiple different viewpoints: “HR is the kind of job where every single day something will cross your desk and you need to pause and reflect on what to do.”

He gives the example of dealing with under-performance or redundancies “where you have to weigh up the impact of a number of different dimensions on all sides”.

Tackling workplace misconduct can also push HR into the grey areas, says Martyn Dicker, founder of The POD Consultancy. “People like to think it’s black and white and there’s an easy answer but it’s more complex; there’s different sides to it and it relates not just to the behaviour of the person.”

Personal development

Which all begs the question of whether it’s even possible to accurately measure the ethical capability of HR professionals, and in turn accredit this ‘skill’ and develop it in practitioners. And are HR professionals currently up to the job?

According to Cookson the “honest answer” is no. “We’re starting from a very low base; mainly because it hasn’t been the focus until the past few years so you’ve got large swathes of HR staff coming into organisations who have never had a conversation before about ethics,” he says.

Much of the gap comes down to how HR professionals start their careers, says Carrie Birmingham, founder of Carrie Birmingham Consult and former HRD at News UK: “Training early on tends to be about serving the business and running legal processes in a compliant way. What’s interesting is how you move from that into dealing with the greyness where there isn’t one right answer.”

Birmingham feels HR practitioners need to be honest with themselves about whether they’re up to the task: “If you’re going to sit in the boardroom as an HR person my question is: to what end? What’s your purpose?”

It’s time the profession was more rigorous in ensuring only those capable of this enter it, she adds: “In good HR people it’s the natural thing to do to think about the people affected and what’s fair and reasonable.”

Which is not to say this muscle can’t be developed and honed over time. But how to do this is a grey area in itself.

“If you were to ask me to write an essay on ethics I could do that, but that doesn’t show if I have the courage to do what I say in the workplace when the shit hits the fan,” muses Cookson.

For him courage and not knowledge is the metric of choice. “But it’s really difficult to measure an individual’s courage to speak up, challenge and have difficult conversations,” he adds.

It’s a sticking point D’Souza admits the CIPD is still navigating as it embeds ethics into its framework and qualifications. “There’s a raft of contextual elements that go into any decision so it’s important for us to understand the challenges HR practitioners face and the context they’re working in,” he says.

“You cannot go on a course to be ethical,” argues Lynne Weedall, NED and RemCo chair, business advisor and former group HRD at Selfridges Group. “The world is evolving rapidly and what felt right once upon a time may no longer be right today – we have to stay open-minded, curious and most of all listen to all points of views, not stick rigidly to past experiences and judgements.”

For Bernd Irlenbusch, professor of corporate development and business ethics at the University of Cologne, this capability can be taught but “not in everyone”. His key advice is to role play rather than focus on theory, and to always bring personal ethics into business ethics.

Shakil Butt, founder of HR Hero for Hire and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide, feels it’s “more about developing your voice and having the courage to speak up, as it’s the easiest thing to come into a new role and just conform”.

Business acumen is also critical, so HR can explain why the ethical course of action is beneficial to the business in the long run, he says. He adds his “acid test” to the mix: four questions HR leaders should ask themselves any time an ethical dilemma is thrown their way.

These are: “Is it legal? What’s my individual ethical code and that of the sector I’m in? What would my mother think? (As if you can’t talk about the issue with a family member without feeling shame then something isn’t right…) And the final, biggest one: if this issue came out on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers how would you feel?”

“Build influential relationships,” advises Birmingham. “So you can sit down with someone and have a conversation about [an ethical dilemma]. Which can be intimidating because people might not like you for what you’ll say.”

Clearly HR isn’t going to win any popularity contests here, which can make being an HR leader “lonely”, says Julie Dennis, Acas’ head of diversity and inclusion.

Rather than holding oneself to impossible standards it’s important to remember “we’re human beings as well so we sometimes get it wrong”, she says.

“Sometimes your gut is telling you it’s the right answer but you question it. We need to not be afraid to reach out to a colleague or someone else in HR as we may find a different solution we’ve not tried before.”

The moral compass

Which brings us to the knotty issue of how involved the rest of the business should be in being the stewards of good ethics and in navigating ethical dilemmas. If there is one thing guaranteed to spark debate among HR professionals it’s whether or not it is their job to be the moral compass of their organisations.

On one side sit those who believe HR has to step up to the mark. “I’ve irritated people on social media for saying it but I genuinely feel if HR isn’t prepared to speak out then who will?” says Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, group HRD at Charles Stanley.

On the other side is the view that HR is being scapegoated by the business. “I rebel against the idea,” says Birmingham. “We’re jointly responsible with the people who work for and run the business.”

As far as Dicker is concerned there’s something of a “mixed answer” to the debate. “Is it just HR’s role to speak truth to power? Absolutely not. But I do think HR often plays the role as the organisation’s conscience if we think of all the things we need in place like wellbeing policies, governance and compliance… But if we take the collapse of Carillion, I don’t think we can simply say ‘if HR had acted differently that wouldn’t have happened’.”

The problem, he believes, is that the business often passes responsibility for ethics into HR’s hands. “I was once given an article about ethics at work from a CEO who hadn’t read it but just said ‘that must be for you’. They didn’t even think to read it. They just thought that was my job.”

An uncomfortable position

The other well-trodden, but critical, debate when it comes to HR’s role in ethics is how the profession treads that fine line between supporting both the business and its employees.

Ian Williams, HRD global network at the British Council, says that HR has typically tended to side with the business: “If we think about the role of the business partner I think HR would tend to say it’s there to support line managers more than employees. But I worry we’ve focused too much on the business and forgotten there are people behind those decisions – we need to be more holistic.”

“Sometimes we develop high tolerance levels and detach ourselves from the reality when we need to take a step back and look at the individual,” says Dennis.

So is striking the right balance the most crucial ethical dilemma for the profession? “It’s often painted this way,” concedes D’Souza.

But he feels it’s “the wrong question”. The right question is: “how do we weigh up our obligations to the organisation, the people in it and broader society?” he says.

“It’s a different way of framing it but I think it’s an incredibly important one as otherwise you end up with a binary situation; which is either you’re working for the people and ironically you might do something not in the long-term interests of the people – for instance you lobby to double everyone’s pay but that doesn’t lead to a sustainable successful business.

“Or if you’re just working for the organisation you might attempt to minimise everyone’s pay. But that’s not going to be the optimal result in terms of morale, so it’s a false choice.”

Griffiths-Lambeth agrees. “I think the two are entwined – the ideal place to get to is where the right answer is the right answer for both,” she says.

“There’s a commercial angle to being ethical and if you can shift away from a short-term to a long-term view then behaving ethically will help you have a sustainable business in the long run. It’s no longer the case that you need to take a financial hit to do the right thing .”

Stay or go?

But what if you find yourself in an organisation whose ethics don’t align with your own? The ultimate ethical dilemma perhaps arises: should the HR professional stay and try to improve the situation, or should they go?

DeGeorge asserts that an HR leader’s ethics inside and outside the business should align: “People need to remember when they go into the business that they don’t take off their ethical hats. You have to keep it on at all times and the rules that apply outside should also apply inside.”

The risk is that an HR practitioner will find themselves bending at best (violating at worst) their personal ethics if they’re working in an unethical environment.

“If you’re surrounded by people who are making decisions that maybe aren’t the most ethical it can be easy to be led astray,” Dicker warns. Take the famous Milgram psychological experiment: where people administered electric shocks to someone up until the person’s ‘death’ because they were following orders.

As Dicker says: “Good people have the potential to be led astray and do bad things.”

Irlenbusch warns of the psychological phenomenon of moral self-licensing bias when there is a breakdown of personal ethics within the business context. “If we think we are very ethical today we might think we can then allow ourselves a little unethical behaviour tomorrow – people should be aware of this,” he says.

It’s a dilemma Griffiths-Lambeth once faced; she opted to resign. “They weren’t prepared to listen and were doing short-term commercial over what made sense long term, and I said ‘if that’s the organisation you want then that’s not an organisation I want to work for’.”

Williams, however, believes there will be times HR has to compromise. “When you join the leadership team they’ll often make decisions you don’t always agree with, but you have to be seen as a collective,” he says.

“That’s not saying you have to compromise your values. But sometimes you have to accept cabinet responsibility and as long as you’ve done everything you can to influence then that’s fine. If you’re not willing to do that then perhaps being in a leadership role isn’t right for you.”

HR’s position is to force the conversation with the organisation and advise the right course of action, says Birmingham, proposing three key questions HR should put to senior decision-makers: “Are you comfortable making that choice knowing it could become public knowledge? Secondly what’s the most important thing here – it feels like we’re fixing the short-term problem but we could be creating a problem down the track. And thirdly what does our website [say] about what type of organisation we are and how far away are we from that in making this decision?”

And if they still go against HR’s advice? “You’ve got a choice of learning how to make sure it doesn’t happen again by doing something differently and as a result becoming a better HR practitioner; or you can leave; or you can think is there someone more powerful to have a conversation with?”

“We should try to focus the conversation in the organisation on ethics and, if you can, codify it into a code of ethics. But if you’re working in an organisation that you don’t ethically agree with and it’s not listening to you, then go work somewhere that will,” says Cookson.

“Ultimately if your organisation has ethics you don’t agree with then you shouldn’t be working there.”

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