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What HR can do about a post-truth workplace

With concerns growing over the rise of ‘fake news’ and a ‘post-truth’ culture, HR faces both a challenge and an opportunity

Most organisations profess to be concerned with producing valuable knowledge for their various stakeholders. Less-often acknowledged is the fact that many organisations have procedures and cultures in place that knowingly suppress attempts to find the truth, prevent employees speaking out and effectively generate falsehoods and ignorance, at least some of the time.

This puts well-intentioned HR professionals seeking to uphold organisational integrity and evidence-based practice in an ethical dilemma. They have to decide how to manage knowledge ethically for the greater good of the organisation and other stakeholders.

Organisations do not usually consider how knowledge and ethics interact. Ethics is frequently thought of in terms of helping or harming others. It is considered far less often in terms of knowledge and truth, which represent a special kind of ethics. It is the absence of this kind of ethics that plays such an important role in shaping the post-truth workplace.

There are a variety of forms the post-truth workplace can take, some less obvious than others. But if HR is to tackle them it is important to recognise them all.

At one end of the post-truth spectrum is the scenario where managers and employees actively push political propaganda and malicious rumours. For example, companies like Exxon Mobil and McDonald’s have been found to engage in ‘astroturfing’ – deliberate ploys to dupe customers and employees by setting up fake support for the company’s reputation and initiatives.

Perhaps more common, but no less worrisome, is an apathetic indifference toward finding out the truth or whether one’s claims are grounded in evidence. Think of managers and employees who dismiss dis-confirmatory views or revel in buzzwords, jargon and ‘business bullshit’. Tech companies with social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do not have much incentive to care about whether the content they present is true or not, as long as it is popular and profitable.

A post-truth workplace is sometimes also founded upon the arrogant overconfidence of the CEO in the superiority of their own version of the truth. Managers or employees who feel their knowledge is superior irrespective of the skill or situation, and that they can easily afford to ignore dissenting voices, fit this form of misconduct. Alexander Nix, the former chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, was accused of hubris in his extraordinary confidence to sell data-driven predictions, however unethically such data was acquired.

Finally, a post-truth workplace can be the result of systemically treating some employees’ contributions as unworthy of serious attention. This can either be directly refusing to see someone as credible, or come about more indirectly where people are unfairly led to believe they are ignorant or mistaken. One very striking example of this is Obama’s Oval Office where female aides had to verbally repeat one another’s contributions to have their own truths taken seriously in wider debates, having previously had their contributions unfairly ignored or appropriated by male speakers.

HR professionals need to spot these behaviours and learn how to challenge them. One method HR could use to counter a post-truth culture is to write their own workplace-specific examples of the above behaviours into their misconduct policies. In addition, HR could also try to develop reward systems and employee voice channels based around celebrating conscientious truth-telling and lie-debunking projects and activities.

Identifying and explaining the problem is the first step to empowering employees and managers to take action. HR should challenge workplaces that play fast and loose with the truth, and take necessary action with like-minded stakeholders to remove some of the smoke and mirrors that have sprung up in our knowledge-intensive economies. More widely we need a cultural and moral shift towards the view that people have a duty to tell the truth at work, and to create frameworks where truth is preserved in exactly the same way as upholding duties to help others in need.

Thomas Calvard is a lecturer in HR and organisation studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Christopher Baird is a doctoral researcher in HR and organisational studies at the University of Edinburgh Business School

A version of this article appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics