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Ethical Considerations for HR Professionals

All too frequently, headlines broadcast the latest local and national corporate scandals. Whether it’s cover-ups, money laundering, insider trading, outright theft, corrupt practices, or conflicts of interest, there is no shortage of highly public and highly publicized documentation of ethical lapses within this nation’s corporations.

This phenomenon, however, is not limited to the private sector. The words just look a little different when we talk about ethical lapses in the public sector, where we might find ourselves reading headlines that talk about, for instance, "misappropriation of public funds." In both school and governmental settings, there have been far too many examples of employees engaging in lavish and unauthorized spending, illegally financed personal trips, and corruption.

Ironically, approximately 90% of business schools offer ethics courses. In many curricula, those programs are not only offered—they are required. Yet, the headlines are still being printed. And in the organizations from which these headlines emanate, it is often HR professionals who find themselves in the middle of the fray.

What Is Ethics?

Ethics has been defined in a number of ways. One way to look at ethics is as a shared values-based system that serves to guide, channel, shape, and direct the behavior of individuals in organizations in an appropriate and productive direction.

Taking this definition one step further, business ethics could be defined as a shared values-based system designed to inculcate within the organization’s population a sense of how to conduct business properly.

HR’s Role in Ethics

HR must play a leadership role in establishing, encouraging, and ensuring ongoing ethical behavior within organizations. HR cannot, however, "own" ethics, or even own the organization’s ethical initiative. Like other programs that are viewed as "HR’s responsibility" (for instance, performance management, interviewing, and the like), ethics must be operationalized so that ownership and responsibility are truly shared by all.

In her article "The Ethical Enabler: Empowering Employees To Become Chief Ethics Officers," Susan Alevas speaks of the process of promulgating and inculcating ethical values in the organization as follows:

  • When it comes to combating ethical complacency, governing board members, chief executive officers and senior management need to become "ethical enablers," the folks who encourage, support, and champion their employees to become "Chief Ethics Officers." Moreover, there’s nothing stopping organizations from also bestowing their vendors and customers with the "Chief Ethics Officer" role.

Why Ethics?

Maintaining an ethical organization isn’t about "being nice" or even "being good." Instead, there are a number of business-driven reasons for cultivating an ethical organization. In short, an erosion of ethics can lead to an erosion of the organization. Just a few of the reasons why it is critical to ensure that our organizations remain ethical are discussed in the following sections.

To Prevent Erosion of Trust

Successful organizations are based on a network of trust—trust that their members will "do the right thing." When that doesn’t happen, or when negative actions are tolerated (or worse, encouraged), employees stop trusting. They may then begin to rationalize inappropriate and unethical behaviors. As the results of this erosion become more visible, employees with a strong sense of personal integrity may leave, and potential employees who do uphold high ethical standards might be difficult to attract.

To Prevent Cynicism

Some people describe skepticism as "healthy," and perhaps some small measure of it is...unless it begins to degenerate into cynicism. The negativity that comes along with cynicism can poison the culture of an organization. Those who cannot tolerate that atmosphere will likely leave—which makes the atmosphere of the remaining organization even more toxic.

To Prevent Dysfunctional Manifestations of Politics

Politics, to some degree, is inevitable within organizations. In unethical organizations, however, politics will likely become increasingly dysfunctional and perhaps even destructive.

To Prevent Aggression/Violence

The anger that can fester when employees perceive that the leaders of an organization have acted in an unjust or inequitable manner often must have an outlet somewhere. Sadly, even tragically, that outlet is not always productive, and can even be highly destructive, as we have all witnessed in well-publicized cases of workplace violence, such as the 1992 Royal Oak Post Office shooting. According to a letter written 10 years later by Charlie Withers, chief steward of the Royal Oak Post Office:

  • This tragedy was the result of a hostile work environment, created by postal management and condoned by those in higher positions within the postal service. This militaristic autocratic management style was allowed to go unchecked, even though the Royal Oak District was feeling the "backlash" in service to its patrons.... The workforce throughout the Royal Oak District was under attack by overzealous managers who used whatever tactics needed to disrupt their lives.... This same group of managers had been investigated in a GAO (Government Accounting Office) investigation done in Indianapolis for the same problems 3 years prior...and nothing was done!!

Aggression can also manifest itself through less violent—and thus perhaps less easily identifiable—forms, such as theft, lying, tampering or vandalism—all in an effort to "get even" with those in power who are treating them unfairly. Aggressive acts such as these have financial as well as non-financial costs to the organization that might exponentially increase if the organization permits or perpetuates an unethical culture.

Cultivating an Ethical Organization

One important element of creating an ethical culture comes from establishing an organizational code of ethics. That code, which ideally should have an introduction from the CEO, should reaffirm the organization’s commitment to the code. The code itself needs to start with the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Together, these three go a long way toward setting the framework for ethics. From there, an organization’s code of ethics needs to address myriad issues from the perspectives employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, and the community at large.

The Code of Ethics: A Living Document

The process of writing a code of ethics is only the beginning. It cannot simply be written and forgotten. Instead, the code of ethics needs to have "life," and it needs to have "teeth"—clear statements relative to how the code—along with and the policies that emanate from the code—will be implemented and upheld.

Once the code is established, individuals at all levels of the organization must be held to its standards. A single standard must apply to all within the organization. Nothing will erode a code of ethics faster than the revelation that it has been applied or enforced inconsistently. It is simply not possible to "overlook" certain ethical violations from a certain person while making an example of the ethical violations of others.

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