Why HR professionals are losing their humanity

Unfortunately most people work in medieval, fear-driven cultures

In November last year I prepared a short research paper for a panel debate on ethics in HR at the CIPD Annual Conference. 1,358 HR professionals had completed the MoralDNA Profile – a psychometric test that assesses how people prefer to make ethical decisions, both in their personal and professional lives.

As this graph demonstrates, in their personal lives people in HR prefer to consider good outcomes for others (love) over compliance with rules (law) or thinking about their principles (logic). But at work they become more like compliant robots who suppress their humanity and empathy for others.

This result is not uncommon, although it does vary by occupation and organisation. In the next graph we see how people working in HR compare with those in healthcare and banking. Those in healthcare are still able to bring their humanity to work, with bankers finding this most difficult. HR professionals fall somewhere between the two.

So why do many good people care less about others when they come to work?

Over the last 15 years I have worked with CEOs, other senior executives and HRDs in major banks, energy, technology and healthcare organisations. It is my experience that while there is often a clear incentive to build trust by acting ethically, there are two blockers that employers struggle with. The first and easiest barrier to overcome is to explicitly practise a coherent, ethical, decision-making framework. The second and much more difficult is to transform the medieval, command-and-control organisational design that suppresses safe, open debate among colleagues when they are making these decisions.

While most of us live in a democracy with an independent judiciary, the vast majority of workplace organisations in every sector – private, public, not-for-profit and charity – are based on a medieval or feudal political system. The equivalent of a monarch CEO and a royal court of C-suite executives command lesser nobles to exploit their workers and customers for personal gain. This political system is based on power inequalities and a culture of coercive control. 'You will make the numbers or else' is what I observe to be rule number one.

We are also still dealing with scandals like Libor, hospital waiting lists and the diesel emissions cover-up. It has been estimated by journals such as The Lancet and Nature that more than a million people globally have suffered premature, preventable deaths because people either followed rule number one or simply didn’t care enough and looked the other way.

In other research it has been shown time and again that the most profitable, sustainable businesses do not focus on rule number one. Instead they concentrate on:

  • A clear social purpose
  • Moral values
  • A culture where democracy of voice is practised in every decision-making meeting.

Just go to Glassdoor UK and you will find many examples of great cultures and CEOs who aren’t control freaks.

So what can you do in HR? Firstly, no matter where you work you will find leaders and teams who create and experience safe, open cultures and who make the numbers as a consequence. These are what I call high-performing, high-integrity teams. Try to understand what they do and how they do it. My guess is that you will find they are more human and less robotic than other leaders and teams. Then as you build up this evidence make the business case for a high-touch, human, and moral organisation.

Roger Steare is visiting professor of organisational ethics at Cass Business School. He also runs Roger Steare Consulting