Ethical choices define us. Who are you?

A little while ago, not long after the banking crisis, I was asked what I thought the role of HR was (or should have been) in preventing or avoiding the institutional failures that led to the meltdown. When I mentioned that I thought HR had a role to play as the organisational conscience there were very mixed views in the room.  My view was and remains that you cannot claim that HR is adding value to a business and then in the same breath deny any responsibility for organisational failure. It is a quid pro quo.

As a profession, we have a Code of Conduct and today the CIPD is launching a consultation on that code. What is ethical? What is unethical? And what are the grey areas…the ones that we really REALLY need to discuss?

  • Who does HR work for and where is the balance of power?
  • Can you operate processes and procedures that are knowingly discriminatory because they are too complicated, too expensive to change?
  • Is it fair game to use any source to get information on an employee, or a future recruit?
  • If you felt the future security of employment, the shareholder investment was at risk through malpractice, would you speak out? And to whom?
  • Would you manage out an employee who you believed was a victim of sexual harassment  at the behest of the senior manager who you felt had harassed them?
  • Would you provide personal details of an employee to the CEO if you were uncomfortable with their reason for wanting them?

I guess what I’m asking is,

“Do you know what is expected of you as a professional?”

Regardless of whether you are a CIPD member or not. If you work in recruitment, the law or PR; what standards do you hold dear? And for my American friends, what can we learn from your side of the pond?

I’d really like to hear as wide a debate as possible on this one, a range of opinions.  We have the chance to make our voices heard and steer the agenda….please don’t overlook this opportunity. Comment here, comment on the Linkedin discussion group, comment on the CIPD website, Tweet about it, blog about it…….

Make your views known and encourage others to do the same.

Going back to the original discussion that started this post. Talking personally ……..I needed to be able to look myself in the mirror every morning.  I need to work, that is an undeniable truth.  But I also need to like myself.  And in this world there is no gig good enough to trade the latter off for the former. A line needs to be drawn, but where I draw that line will be very different to where you draw yours. And that is the value of having a professional code.

Ethical choices define us. Who are you?


  1. Gareth Jones · May 11, 2011

    An interesting question and as you point out, a good opportunity not to be passed. The point is though, coming back to your list of bullets – do you take action. We can all look in the mirror and want to like ourselves and decide if our line has been crossed. And as you say, our individual lines are likely to be in different places. But the real question for me is what should we do at that point? Walk away? Or speak up? That is what sets us apart, not where our moral or ethical line is.

    I like to think that the HR funtion as the corporate immune system. Our immune system operates independently of our concious brain. keeping our physical (and to a certain degree, mental) selves whole is, at the cellular level anyway, out of out brains conscious control. And if you imagine the brain to be the CEO you’ll get where I’m coming from.

    In that context, perhaps the bigger question is, which major/vital organs represent other funtions/functional heads?! Oh I could have a lot of fun with that one 😉

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Surely you need to know where your moral or ethical line is before you know whether it has been crossed? I guess I think that if you don’t speak up or take action, what you have in effect done is move your ethical line….

  2. Kay Heald · May 11, 2011

    I’m very glad you’ve flagged ethics in the context of HR. It is something I felt very strongly about when setting up on my own – there’s not just the internal HR vs ethics debate in departments and boardrooms, but ethical issues when giving advice as an external HR Consultant. I have made a number of HR decisions that I believe were the right ones for my clients, but adversely affected my bottom line. I don’t have any regrets, because I do believe that a strong ethical code is respected in these cynical times!

    Look forward to seeing how this debate unfolds.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Thanks for commenting Kay and the point you make is really interesting because it could impact you very personally – if say a client decided not tyo use your services – without any real recourse.

  3. David Goddin · May 11, 2011

    My moral compass, the professional ethics I hold myself accountable and how I choose to behave make me who I am. To Kay’s point, my clarity around this really came from establishing my own practice.

    Organisations often unwittingly permit their employees to turn up to work and “hand in” their personal moral compass and ethics at reception. And therein lies the dilemma for the individual…. Is it more advantageous to work to the permitted culture and ethics of your employer or stand up for and adhere to those of say your professional body?

    So for the HR profession, I think the answer could lie in removing the dilemma and asking organisations to sign up to the Code of Conduct – why wouldn’t they as responsible employers?

    In terms of expected ethics I’m not sure what needs to change. However, perhaps something can be learnt from the progress & experience being made with bodies like the EMCC. Their Code of Ethics and Supervision Guidelines are adopted by individuals and organisations using coaching and mentoring in a variety of settings. To me there are parallels here with the apparent requirements of HR professionals.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Interesting….do you think that organisations always live true to their stated aims? Would signing up to some sort of charter just be another set of words?

      • David Goddin · June 13, 2011

        Set a of words that they are publicly accountable for/to…. always makes a difference in corporate life! More than that, it takes the dilemma away from the individual – you choose to either act in the spirit of the “charter” or not. It probably makes for a more informed workforce….

  4. Noel O'Reilly · May 11, 2011

    Refreshing to see someone in HR address this issue. What it raised for me is the question of whether HR can have ethical principles beyond those that relate to business risk, ie protecting shareholder investment, influencing culture and practices to prevent illegal activity by the organisation’s employees and executiv, legal compliance, fairness and diversity. Do HR people have values that go beyond the “business case” or what if their personal values conflict with what they’re asked to do at work. Themedical profession (doctors and nurses) have codes of practice and values that extend well beyond the economics of health service delivery. But does HR stand for anything. Much of business is short-sighted, short term and narrowly focused on profit. Meanwhile issues like the environment, peak flow and the massive disparity between the rich industrialised countries and the rest of humanity call for urgent and concerted ethical action. Has that got anything to do with HR? You wouldn’t get that impression from observing HR people as I’ve been doing for about two decades now.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Noel you make some fantastic points. Turning your question around on its head though….should HR have anything to do with this?

  5. James Papiano · May 11, 2011

    Though it has been (fairly) said that HR’s job is in part to balance the needs of the company with the needs of the employees, when push comes to shove, HR pro’s are there to defend and advance the interests of the organization. This can become a problem when the ethics of a situation are tricky or leadership is not as concerned with ethics as they should be.

    I suspect that there are several factors that contribute to HR pro’s finding themselves in a pickle.

    1. In the US, many HR folks are obsessed with being seen as business people who can hang with the toughest of the bunch. This can leave them open to group think and peer pressure.

    2. Some HR folks are so steeped in the black and white world of compliance that they have not developed the capacity to navigate tricky ethical situations and drive consensus.

    3. The paycheck. Anyone who is beholden to a paycheck is not fee to think, speak, and act independently when the going gets tough.

    HR people need to have the skills to understand the intersection of ethics, business, and the lives of people. But they also have to have the freedom to take a stand when necessary. Only in this way can HR act as the “immune system” mentioned by Gareth, or for externals, resign a job when business leaders are not able to do the right thing.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      James the three points that you make are absolutely spot on in highlighting why I think HR pros suffer in these areas. I particularly think the first point is something that needs to be highlighted and challenged.

  6. Neil Usher · May 12, 2011

    Every business function has – for so long – been clamouring for a seat at the top table. In the “fog” of the struggle to be taken seriously at a strategic level, as a genuine business partner, many have lost sight of where they came from. It is often said in relation to individuals that one must never forget one’s roots, and always remember to look behind us.

    There is nothing wrong with playing a vital role in an organisation at a tactical or operational level. Not everyone and everything has to be “strategic”.

    As a workplace professional who started in this area as a Facilities Manager twenty years ago, when I am now working on a major property strategy, designing a new workplace or managing a re-development, I never forget the values and ethics I learned when at the coal face of service delivery, dealing with the detail of people’s daily workspace needs to enable them to get their job done. I try to always keep in mind how I got to where I am, and to ensure I mainatin an operational awareness.

    If HR seeks only to be a strategic business partner, how will it earn employee trust? HR needs to always remember where it came from, and be proud of that.

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Surely the ethical stance of an individual is made up of a thousand small actions as easily as it is made up of one big gesture?

  7. Flora Marriott · May 13, 2011

    I really wanted to comment on this post but have struggled to get my thoughts down.

    For me a key statement that Neil makes is: “you cannot claim that HR is adding value to a business and then in the same breath deny any responsibility for organisational failure”

    Yes absolutely.

    Tudor Rickards (Uk academic; wrote a great book about leadership) just tweeted about the Facebook smearing Google disaster: ‘bad ethics is bad business’. So if HR is meant to be helping good, successful business, then it follows that HR should promote good ethics.

    Neil, you also ask “Do you know what is expected of you as a professional?”
    I think the problem is that being a ‘professional’ isn’t cut and dried. As Graham Salisbury wrote this week on his blog, his research has led him to think that ‘profesional’ is one word with two different meanings. One being grounded in expertise and influencing managers, and essentially about fitting in with business needs. Another meaning is HR as a policeman, someone who resists business managers doing things that don’t comply with policies etc. Both types of people would probably say they were professional and ethical.

    What bothers me is the wider context – it’s all very well trying to be ethical but so many companies have an unethical business proposition, when you stand back and think about it. I woke up too early this morning and so switched on Farming Today (as you do). A farmer was on, talking about how he’d sacrificed a bit of profit for having a bigger stretch of wildlife friendly unfarmed land. He said

    “the most important thing is that I also safeguard this land and the wildlife for the future. I’m just passing through this life, so I’m a steward of this land. I do need to make a profit, but not at the expense of my stewardship”.

    How many businesses have that kind of long, long, term attitude? And what role does/is HR playing in this. I loved Noel’s comment, which properly articulated what I’m trying to say.

    James’ comment about the paycheck is also spot on. There’s another set of ethics in play, when someone has a moral dilemma at work. ‘Do I stand up against this unethical thing, or leave, OR is my bigger ethical priority to take the paycheck and provide for my family?’

    I would urge people to go and take a look at the LinkedIn discussion on the CIPD proposal. There are some fascinating comments. Also the document itself makes for interesting reading. My view is that it is very wholly and uses the word ‘professional’ far too much (especially given that different people have different meanings for it). Here’s an example:

    “• in whatever capacity they are working, promote the adoption of the most appropriate people management and development practices to enable the achievement of present and future business objectives.”

    The ‘most appropriate’ management practices for achieving business objectives could be a low cost-high control model that does not seek to maintain any kind of balanced employment relationship or to gain employee trust. I guess my problem is that we’re assuming that the business objectives are always noble and worthy. However, that takes me back to where I started this comment…..

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      Doesn’t look like you struggled to get your thoughts down from where I’m standing!!

      I’m not sure I totally agree with you on business objectives….very few businesses if any exist without a need for them… in itself is that not worthy?

  8. Doug Shaw · May 13, 2011

    To my mind – “professional” has nothing to do with it. Professional implies that it’s OK to do wrong by whatever standard you set in work, out of it. That’s not very clear, sorry. How about this for a set of “who are you?” questions?

    1. What would my Mum say about this?
    2. What if this was my personal money?
    3. Is this how I would want to be treated?
    4. Would I want what I am doing widely known?
    5. Am I going to keep this promise?

    I didn’t come up with these – sorry I don’t know who did. But the answers to these questions define who I am and that has bugger all to do with whether or not I am at work. Is authenticity too much to aspire to?

    • Neil · June 13, 2011

      I’m not entirely sure I agree with you on the professional Doug – it was just a word that I used, could have been “person in work” but that sounds a bit clunky!

      I like the questions, but I don’t think that deals with the wider issue of cognitive dissonance that arises when organisations (or people) start to go wrong and people start to say “well if it wasn’t for…….” or “I wouldn’t normally but……”

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