Why HR must be willing to show ethical leadership


How crucial is HR to any company wanting to be seen as a responsible business? Some years back the answer would probably have been “not much.”

Today, the situation is entirely different. Now HR can play at least six essential roles that potentially influence the approach of any business claiming to be a responsible member of the community—see the partial mind map below.

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Two earlier articles in this series examined the contribution HR can make in giving the company a strategic focus and how HR is often now viewed as an ethical Guardian. In the latter case, HR may help to steer the entire organisation towards “doing the right thing” and demonstrate moral leadership through the observable behaviour of practitioners on the ground.

Another of the heavy weight roles for HR in this area of ethical concerns is to provide and demonstrate various forms of relevant expertise.

For example, HR professionals often now actively contribute to helping the organisation develop its ethical policies, communicating these through numerous communication channels, and in teaching employees what it means to behave in accordance with the declared policies.

As part of the development of ethical policies HR, will often become responsible for ensuring there are regular ethical audits and suggest practical ways to enforce agreed standards of behaviour.

Many companies are simply not big enough to support a separate ethics/compliance function.  This is why an HR person may end up performing this role. Even where there is a fully funded separate function, HR will almost certainly be heavily involved, since for example, the vast majority of the calls coming into an ethics hotline tend to be HR related.

For employees to do more than just pay lip service to a company’s ethical rules and codes of practice, heavy-handed compliance systems seldom deliver the goods.

Auditing and control mechanisms may tick a box and satisfy a legal requirement. Yet they will seldom ensure people voluntarily speak up if they observe something wrong at work in the form of unethical or questionable behaviour.

Only when employees feel fully engaged both at work, are they likely to use their voice and draw attention to malpractices. HR professionals have the valuable expertise to help the organisation first to address the whole issue of engagement on which an ethical culture will inevitably rest.

For example HR can help managers and leaders come to understand the importance of VIDI—that people need to feel Valued, Involved, Developed and Inspired.

Secondly, HR professionals have the potential to guide the organisation is creating a culture where it’s safe to speak up.  In far too many organisations it is unrewarding and sometimes positively risky to raise your head above the parapet about anything that challenges or questions current practice.

This is particularly true where it implies criticism of leaders, managers or supervisors. HR can therefore be active in creating safe channels for employees to express concerns, and in developing the necessary levels of trust across the entire culture.

For instance HR can forge partnerships within the company to enlist support, share information and resources to drive the responsibility for an ethical culture to all parts of the organisation. This may mean using their expertise to promote a committee approach to distilling an ethical culture throughout the enterprise.

Finally, HR can contribute its expertise to a company’s ethical culture by ensuring a focus on values and particularly relationships. Since these are now associated with being a profitable organisation there is every incentive for HR to flex its muscles in this area and walk the talk making sure leaders and senior managers take these seriously.

To sum up, HR has a formidable range of Expertise to deploy when it comes to helping an organisation act responsibly.  One often hears HR professionals bemoaning how helpless they feel within the hierarchy, or how powerless they are to make a difference. The opposite is true, though it does mean being willing to show ethical leadership in making clear what HR has to offer in this important aspect of company  affairs.

This is the third 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.

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For a copy of this White Paper simply send an e-mail headed WHITE PAPER to info@maynardleigh.co.uk.



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