HR and taking an ethical lead

Back in 2010 a PWC report found a growing disconnect between corporate behaviour and ethical conduct. Perceptively it observed  this had “triggered a sense that global public trust in business has declined.” [i]

Since then events have not exactly moved in the right direction. Numerous examples of bad corporate behaviour, plus the usual dose of research studies have tended to confirm the impression of business organisations making heavy weather of the whole ethical issue.

One the other hand, it is opening up new opportunities for HR professionals. They can for instance, play an important lead role in the promotion and development of ethics within their organisations.

Many of course already do this. Others are perhaps less sure of their remit, and how they might make a difference. There are in fact at least six key areas where HR can make an ethical impact:


Role of HR


For many HR professionals this will be relatively new territory. Some may feel uncomfortable with one or more of the available roles they could play within their organisations.

Take for example the role of ethical Guardrian, or as it is sometimes called: a Moral Steward. This is one important way HR helps develop the organisation’s moral compass. The challenge though, is to become clear about what is driving the desire of trying to exercise influence. See box below:

What do ethics mean to you?

  • Which action will do the most good and the least harm for everyone who is affected—this is the Utilitarian Theory
  • Which action protects and furthers the rights of the stakeholders, this approach is based on Rights
  • Which action produces a fair distribution of benefits and costs for all stakeholders—this is the Distributive Justice approach
  • What action cares for those individuals with whom you have a special relationship—this approach is based on ethics being about Caring
  • What actions display virtuous character traits such as integrity, honesty, fairness, loyalty, etc.—this is Ethics based on the idea of Virtue

To see these worked through with actual work examples of ethical dilemmas, see: Ethics in Human Resource Management By Myrna L. Gusdorf, MBA, SPHR2010 Society for Human Resource Management, 2010

Without clarity, colleagues may come to see the HR person as attempting to be “holier than thou”, setting impeccable standards of desired ethical performance—for others. Instead, it’s about helping to raise awareness, for instance, drawing attention to possible ethical dilemmas or perhaps questionable ethical behaviour.

Being a moral steward also requires HR to be a champion of ethical business behaviour, promoting ethics as an important focus for the organisation. Again, this is not to moralise, but to add definite value.

Another aspect of being a steward is acting as a role model for ethical leadership. This may encompass for example, continually putting ethics on business agendas, constantly referring to the importance of ethics in helping to build the business and speaking up about ethics issues when others remain fearful or simply silent.

In this role HR professionals feel free, indeed obliged, to comment on just about any business activity by viewing it through the filter of ethical behaviour.


[i] PWC Point of view October 2010

This is first in our series of six blogs on the ethical responsibilities of human resources.


is a new White Paper from Maynard Leigh Associates based on this series and available from November 2013.

no hiding place

For a copy of this White Paper simply send an e-mail headed WHITE PAPER to



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