HR must speak up about ethics

The ongoing scandal around the use of NDAs in sexual harassment cases shows where the profession’s immediate priorities lie, says Karen Grave

Sometimes it takes unconnected events to help you put a voice to an issue you have been musing on for some time. For me, the issue is ethics and what role HR practitioners can and should play. The unconnected events are the controversies around the use of non-disclosure agreements and the death of Senator John McCain, the six-term senate representative for Arizona.

Both demonstrate challenges we are all facing in our workplaces and home lives – different generations, shifts in societal norms, technology-transformed media environments and changing expectations of politicians, public sector bodies and private sector organisations. They also profoundly contrast our very human responses to these challenges.

Recent work with a valued client has led me down the rabbit hole with them in defining ethics – particularly its relationship to values and behaviours. And that, together with concern over NDAs and what they have been used to silence, has had me mulling the ethics conundrum for months.

There is no question that the use of NDAs in the charity sector, which kept the lid on allegations of sexual misconduct, damaged the public perception of HR. Poor leadership decisions were made in these instances, including in HR teams. Over the last year, in talking to a range of colleagues – and, interestingly, non-HR professionals – I’ve seen an increasing desire to have HR speak up about these issues.  

Many leaders struggle under the ever-increasing pressures of leading complex public service organisations. HR peers are also confounded by a need to challenge unreasonable use of NDAs with a need to be pragmatic about the time and cost involved in not using them.  

But this conundrum matters. Fantastic work from colleagues elsewhere has helped us better understand the relationship between leadership and values on employee engagement, health and wellbeing and productivity. Anything we do to undermine that relationship has to be a matter of huge concern. And we mustn’t forget the impact on trust; the corroding of trust is one of the most poisonous consequences of both poor leadership and poor HR practice. Just ask anyone who has been on the wrong side of an NDA.

As practitioners, we all know there are times when an NDA is necessary. But the recent spotlight on the topic has shown that in some parts of public service we’ve gone too far. We have relied on expediency over values. We have not upheld the often implicit expectations people have that public service organisations are meant to act to a higher standard. 

This brings me back to the passing of Senator McCain. To him, morals mattered – profoundly. He was a man born into a military family, spent five years as a captive in the Vietnam war, was tortured horribly, ran for President twice and served 30 years in the US Senate. He was an inspiration to many millions of people in the US and across the world, and a thorn in the side of many of his colleagues.

His implacable commitment to principles he held so dear, of service to others, courage in the face of adversity, a willingness to argue over ideas without demonising a person, a willingness to collaborate with others who didn’t share this views, his devotion to public service, his gratitude for all of his life experiences and his honest recognition that he was an imperfect public servant, resonate so loudly in current times. He was a genuine leader.

His passing is a remembrance of a time when our institutions more confidently and volubly talked about ethics and values. Of a time where there were genuine heroes; where people fought for causes based on respect, argument and integrity. The more we see scandals across institutions – and they are by no means confined to public service organisations – the greater the imperative for the praetorian guard of leadership and values to speak up. 

That’s us – we need to speak up and bring this debate to life. Morals matter, leadership matters, and our role in enabling and sustaining organisations that demonstrate the very best of both matters – hugely.

Karen Grave is president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA)