Should HR steer clear of ethics?

How central to an organisation is the role of human resources? Much hot air has been expended on this issue, particularly in recent years. It includes whether HR is fully represented at the highest levels, for example at board level, and if not why not.

This acquires a new impetus when it comes to running a responsible business. This is now firmly on many company agendas and only partly because of regulatory pressures.

First, it makes absolute sense to invest in reducing risks from reputational damage due to unethical business behaviour; secondly, there’s growing realisation of the competitive gains from being ethical, that is, from running a responsible business.

Where then does HR fit into this scenario and the new realisation of leaders? One of the most clear cut areas where HR professionals can play an important role is in helping the organisation with its strategic focus.


These contrasts with the fairly widespread focus on operational or tactical measures that HR tends to promote. Too often HR professionals prefer reside in this short-term territory, since in many ways it is more comfortable and at least produces “evidence” of making an impact.

The best HR departments already recognise the value of taking a longer term strategic approach to their role. Take for example the University of Cambridge HR service. At the deepest level the service: “Demonstrates awareness of the University’s direction; understands and supports its mission.” [1]

In practical terms, the service has specific indicators of performance. Expressed more generically they could apply equally in any business organisation too:

  • Understands and supports what the University is working to achieve.
  • Understands what other areas of the University do and where to get information.
  • Understands how own role contributes to the goals of the University.
  • Thinks through the wider consequences of own actions.
  • Co-operates with University policy and procedures.

In thinking through the wider consequences of its own actions for example, the service would need to be as concerned about means as about ends. That is, the ethical dimension would need to play an important part in evaluating and making important business choices, decisions and plans.

The central argument of this series of six blogs concerns how the ethical dimension provides HR professionals with a powerful new form of leverage to be heard and to have influence.  Using it, they can legitimately speak up, not just about operational matters, but about the strategic goals of the organisation—both what these are and how they are achieved.

In some ways there’s nothing particularly new about this. Women in HR for example, have often been seen as the “guardian” of ethics for an organisation. Many have indeed complained of being restricted to this role. Caring about ethics tends to be associated with a more general caring role, traditionally inhabited by women.

Regardless of the history though, today the higher profile of ethics means to run a responsible business presents an important opportunity for HR practitioners to affect strategy, both in terms of goals and how these are reached.

HR stay clear!

Of course some people consider HR should have nothing to do with ethics. For example, what business have HR professionals attempting to affect their companies on such issues as: abuse of the world’s physical resources, and the global ecological balance (Esso); Abuse of human rights (Shell/Nigeria); Animal rights (KFC, McDonald’s); Aggressive treatment of competitors (Wal-Mart); Exploitative and unscrupulous marketing (Philip Morris; KFC selling obese creating food )?

Surely these are simply business matters and HR has no remit to interfere? However, within companies the business of HR is business. To deny or forget this is to restrict it to administration of corporate procedures, ie the bureaucracy of what has traditionally been the remit of personnel management.

For HR professionals to adopt a more strategic approach using Ethics as their entry card, means being willing to speak up about poor standards of conduct emanating from the top, since these ultimately affect employee motivation and commitment to organisational goals.


  • Concern about increased job insecurity – arising from ‘flexible’ work practices such as short-term and temporary conditions of employment; fear of job loss due to outsourcing; Off-shoring; increased stress; and a widening imbalance of power between management and workforce;
  • An increase in surveillance and control – this ranges from the use of psychometric tests to electronic surveillance of work patterns through the application of technology;
  • Deregulation – freedom of the market place has been imposed by global regulators such as the WTO, impatience of line managers which in practice may push HR into compromising ‘good’ practice, for business needs.
    In professional services organisations, for example, fee-earners may be challenged to decide between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing well’;
  • Decline in management integrity, leading to loss of trust, and attempts to manipulate organisational culture
  • Promoting fairness and justice across the organisation because it helps promote better individual performance.


This is the second in our series 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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