The Thorny Issue of Ethics in HR
Today’s HR departments manage a suite of responsibilities that go beyond recruitment, compensation and benefits. For example, HR also handles workforce planning, diversity and inclusion, company culture, employee retention, workplace conflict, data privacy, and code of conduct. All of these HR activities and others can be linked to ethics in some way.
What does ethics mean in business?
To make ethical decisions, we must consider the options before us and make the choice that is consistent with ethical principles.
In business, ethics is about knowing the company's values, guidelines and standards, and acting within those parameters when dealing with workplace issues. The human resources function plays a crucial role in shaping these values, guidelines and standards.
HR's role in building an ethical workplace
A report by the Society for Human Resource Management states, "If workers believe that their organization and its leaders are fair, respectful and trustworthy, and that the organization's values and practices are ethically justified, they will meet or exceed expectations."
By fostering an ethically sound workplace, the HR department can help employees attain their professional goals. Per SHRM, ethically sound workplaces have the following four ingredients:
- Compliance. This refers to the norms, values and ethical expectations of your organization. These boundaries must be effectively communicated to all employees so they know what's expected of them.
- Fairness. Do employees view your organization as fair and just? If so, then employee trust in the organization can be established. If not, then employee distrust will prevail and derail organizational performance.
- Motive-based trust. In this case, trust is based on how employees view the motives and intentions of those they work with. Managers who behave ethically are likely to instill trust in their employees.
- Ethical working self-concept. To what degree do your employees identify with your organization's ethical values? Employees who significantly identify with the organization's principles will behave in a way that is consistent with those principles.
To help build an ethically sound workplace, HR managers should adopt policies, procedures and practices that promote those goals.
- Clearly distinguish acceptable conduct in the workplace from unacceptable conduct. Include your stance on common ethics-related issues, such as discrimination, harassment, favoritism, employee privacy, performance evaluations and employee accountability.
- Give employees at all levels the tools needed to achieve the highest level of ethical conduct. For example, provide training and written guidance on ethical conduct in the workplace. Develop a confidential process for reporting ethics violations and a system for disciplining violators.
- Be aware of the statutes impacting ethics-related workplace policies and practices, such as whistleblower protection laws that prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report unethical or unlawful workplace actions.
HR professionals should steer clear of unethical behaviors such as misrepresenting job duties, breaching confidentiality protocols, and discriminating against applicants and employees. When HR personnel behave in an ethical manner, it sets the stage for others within the organization to follow.