HR Policies and Fundamental Justice

When employers terminate an employee as punishment for wrongdoing, it is important that they proceed in a way that pays attention to fundamental principles of justice. The firing can’t be arbitrary, or be carried out without sufficient evidence. The firing should be a penalty proportionate to the wrong committed — that is, the punishment should fit the ‘crime.’ And the employee to be terminated ought to be allowed a reasonable opportunity to respond to the accusations. These are fundamental ethical principles, ones that happen also to be entrenched to a greater or lesser degree in HR law.

In that regard, here’s an interesting story about a civil servant in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, who successfully appealed her dismissal, on the grounds that the right process hadn’t been followed. More specifically, she’s a city employee who stands accused of doing work on behalf of other employers on city time. Interestingly, the court that overturned City Council’s decision to fire her didn’t disagree with Council’s reasons — the court merely disagreed with the process that was followed. In particular, the employee hadn’t been given enough time to prepare for the Council meeting at which her case was considered and a guilty ‘verdict’ issued.

The key point to understand, though, isn’t about the legal standard the court applied. Or at least, the legal standard isn’t the only interesting part. Because the legal standard applied — one according to which someone accused of something deserves a decent amount of time to prepare a defence — isn’t just a legal principle, but also a fundamental principle of justice. It’s a moral principle that is embedded in our legal system, and that ought to have been embedded in Connellsville’s HR policies. In other words, the city’s policies ought to have stipulated that an employee accused of wrongdoing be given sufficient time to mount a defence before being asked to stand ‘trial.’

Last Friday I spoke at the annual Client Conference for the big Toronto HR law firm, Hicks Morley. The talk was entitled “The Ethical Core of HR Law.” The basic idea was one that is nicely illustrated by the story cited above. Laws exist to protect rights and to promote human wellbeing. Organizational policies are in a sense a kind of private law, albeit a kind of law designed to support achievement of organizational goals. Thus every policy an organization puts in place ought to be thought of as grounded in one or more ethical principles or values. Organizations ought to give as much thought to the ethical content of their policies as they do to promulgating and enforcing them.

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