The time to act on ethics is now

When wrongdoing occurs, HR often has questions to answer, says Shakil Butt. But professionals don’t have to face moral issues alone

The CIPD believes “work can be and should be a force for good” and has rightly been emphasising the human in human resources. HR is a big part of doing what’s right and getting beyond the tired mantra of ‘doing more with less’ and the efficiency drives of recent times.

Like preceding years, 2018 has seen many businesses and individuals in the media spotlight for behaving unethically, which might explain why less than half of the British public believes companies behave ethically, according to the Institute of Business Ethics. Business leaders, in fact, are trusted by only 34 per cent of people to tell the truth, says Red Sox research, slightly ahead of estate agents but a long way behind nurses, doctors and teachers.

Unethical business behaviour this year has ranged from the use of data to sexual harassment allegations such as the Presidents Club scandal, where scantily dressed women were recruited to pander to the patrons of a men-only event. And in each case, HR has questions to answer. What did it know and when? What did it do once it knew? If it did nothing more than actioning a decision, is it complicit in the act?

HR departments sometimes interpret business partnering as simply serving customers to achieve their ends. But by its very nature, it involves serving the business – and often protecting it from its own actions. Doing the right thing is not just important but good business sense.

The biggest challenge with ethics is that everyone has their own definition and their own boundaries shaped by personal experiences. Every action can potentially be justified or excused, often because in the mind of every individual, they are the hero of their own story and never the villain. 

Research from HRD Connect highlighted reasons for behaving unethically including a lack of resources (35 per cent) and time pressures (34 per cent) – or even because individuals were simply following orders (28 per cent).

Power structures often present in hierarchical organisations can exacerbate the problem. Good governance is essential to put controls in place that prevent and limit unethical behaviour, in addition to creating ‘safe platforms’ for concerns to be raised by anyone irrespective of where they are in the hierarchy and without fear of repercussions and recrimination.

The ‘dark side’ of HR has seen practitioners using non-disclosure agreements that favour the guilty and silence victims while allowing perpetrators to continue in the same vein. This creates a toxic culture where acting unethically or turning a blind eye is expected and rewarded while questioning and challenging is punishable.

All of which explains why ethics features heavily in the CIPD’s new Profession Map and at the recent Annual Conference and Exhibition, where ethics featured as one of five streams available for delegates. The Profession Map stressed it is principles-led and lists ethical decision-making, in fact, as part of ensuring professionalism.

The CIPD is providing access to fact sheets and podcasts, as well as a dedicated confidential helpline for addressing workplace dilemmas and ethical challenges where issues can be discussed anonymously and guidance and support offered. And it is backed by a number of suggested ethical tests: (1) Is it legal? (2) Is it consistent with the organisation’s code of business ethics? (3) What would my mother think? (4) How would I feel about it being on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper? 

To be effective and strategic, HR needs to be the ‘moral compass and consciousness’ of the organisation. Is it easy to do what is right? No – if it was, everyone would be doing it. But as Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “The time is always right, to do the right thing.”