Why HR Management is Always Ethically Relevant

Ethics should be thought of as the heart of your organization’s HR function. Likewise, HR is likely to be the heart of attempts to manage ethics within your organization. Let me explain why.

It’s hard to imagine a function more essential to most businesses than HR.
HR may not get the glory that Finance does, but it’s just as important. Hiring, training, evaluating, and retaining the right people are all undeniably core management challenges. Every manager knows this. The relevant difference between Finance and HR is that Finance gains prestige by bringing to bear the tools of quantitative analysis; HR issues, on the other hand, are typically harder to quantify, harder to mathematize, leading many to think of them as “mushy.” But “mushy” typically just means “I find this stuff difficult.” Managers who find HR difficult would rather hide in the numbers. Ironically, HR gets called “soft” precisely because it is so hard.

At many large companies, the HR Department is in charge of ethics — or at least that part of ethics that isn’t bundled with Compliance. The HR Department is often tasked with making sure every employee gets a copy of the company Code of Ethics, for example. HR is also typically in charge of ethics training, as well as updating the company’s Conflict of Interest policy and other ethically-salient policies.

But the fact that many companies embed their Ethics function within their HR function may actually obscure the extent to which every aspect of HR is ethically significant. The full extent to which HR is an ethical matter may not be obvious.

Ethics is fundamentally concerned with the choices we make — either as individuals or as companies — when those choices have an impact on people’s well-being or their rights. And so ethics is and must be part of all of the policies and activities for which HR is responsible, not just the ones that have the word “ethics” explicitly attached to them.

Hiring, for instance, (or setting the rules for hiring) involves balancing a range of value-laden criteria, such as skill and experience and reliability, and avoiding ethically-inappropriate criteria such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The same goes for performance evaluation. Likewise, how overtime is handled — who is eligible, under what conditions, with whose permission — is a fundamental question of justice. This is also true of policies related to discipline, which obviously require attention to fairness, another central sub-topic within ethics.

So even if it weren’t in charge of ethics training and ethics policies, the HR function would remain ethically crucial.

Finally, HR also gains ethical significance by embodying most of the few tools available for managers to shape that elusive thing known as corporate culture. Culture — that communal set of understandings, beliefs and traditions that give a shared sense of “how we do things around here” — is widely acknowledged to be a critical element of organizational success. Indeed, there’s a well-worn saying to the effect that culture trumps strategy every time. That is, regardless of what strategic initiatives senior managers put in place, or what policies they put down on paper, those initiatives and policies are liable to fail if the culture of the workplace isn’t suited to them. Enron famously had a rather lengthy code of ethics, but the culture fostered by the company’s compensation model and its performance review process went a long way toward fostering a culture in which unethical behaviour was readily tolerated. Culture, you might say, makes up an organization’s collective ethical character.

So we see, then, that HR is actually ethically significant in two ways. It is the locus of an enormous number of central, ethically-relevant policies, practices, and decisions. And it is the mechanism through which organizational culture is built, the culture that will hopefully support rather than frustrate ethical decision making.


A shorter version of this blog entry appeared at the Cornerstone Blog

4 comments so far

  1. Carly on

    As an HR professional, I can relate to the importance of what we do and why. As it pertains to ethics, we ensure that all policies, procedures, and laws are followed and followed consistently for all employees without regard to race, sex, age, etc. It is imperative in my role that we act upon fairness and that we resist prejudice and personal feelings when making decisions. HR plays an important role in a company’s culture as well because they are the source for instilling the company’s vision, mission, and values and use all of these along with the concept of fairness as a foundation when making decisions to hire, retain, and sometimes terminate employees. In my position, we strive to partner with managers as well as employees to educate them on the way we do things and what the expectations are in order to set everyone up for success.

  2. Andres Martin-Farfan on

    Hello Chris,

    As you said, in most big companies the HR department is in charge of ethics. I saw that when I got my last position, during my first two days I got a code of ethics, I did some online training, and receive some paperwork explaining the conflict of interest policy. However, when I got in the arena and started working, things were different as I was told in the first place. There was a problem with compliance coming from management. Soon after I started working, I learned that sending bills to our patients is a courtesy, and if for any reason they do not receive a bill at home or the address change, they are sent to a collections agency. They company mission statement says something like, treat other as you want to be treated (I do not want to copy and paste the mission statement to leave it anonymous) but nobody wants to be sent to collections without even getting a bill in the first place. I feel like I should do something about it but to whom should I ask for advice? Management is pushing us to do something that seems to be unethical.

  3. Melanie Byrom on

    Chris,
    I enjoyed your business blog regarding the Human Resources Department and their role with ethics in organizations today. I personally have been working in the field of Human Resources for the past 10 years and understand how important it is to teach and remind employees about ethics. The current HR department I work for is customer driven and committed to providing quality services to the community and ensuring that our employees are treated with respect, dignity, and individual attention. Senior management must be reminded that their business decisions need to comply with the organization’s culture in order to maintain consistency and fairness among all employees. HR ‘s position is very crucial to an organization because they are usually the department that employee’s confide in and if HR hears that their rights are being violated, they must investigate and assist in resolving the issue. Not only is HR responsible for teaching employees about ethics, they have to monitor how the organization is operating and make any necessary changes to ensure fairness.

  4. Kayleen Garlicki on

    Chris,

    I really appreciated your business blog that focused on the importance of HR Management and why it is ethically relevant to internal company processes. Although I do not work specifically in Human Resources, I do work for an organization that emphasizes the importance of standards, values, and ethics within a company culture. When taking into consideration ethics and Human Resources specifically, I do believe it is crucial for the department to be ethical in nature and that the respective responsibilities of department personnel constitute fair treatment. As I look at ethics within Human Resources from an outside perspective, I believe promoting and fostering fairness and justice amongst all employees is most important; however, I think it can be a daunting task. In my opinion, there are so many people within an organization and so many potential issues (employee responsibility, race, restructuring, layoffs, safety and healthy), that it may be difficult to maintain a sense of consistency in regards to all of company decisions with its employees.


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