Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

Does working in HR make us more unethical?

I recently finished watching the fifth and final season of Damages – a brilliant series about two women lawyers. One is young and starting out and the other is older and very powerful. At the end, the younger lawyer Ellen realises that she has become like Patti (Glenn Close’s character) and she doesn’t want to be a bad person – so she gives up being a lawyer.

While I’d always thought that nothing could top the series finale of Seinfeld many years ago, the finale of Damages got me thinking more. Would most of us give up the career we love if we saw it made us be someone we didn’t want to be?

Having worked in large corporate environments, I’ve seen people making extremely unethical decisions to tow the company line. How can they live with themselves? Well actually in my HR career I’ve been asked to conduct actions that I’ve considered not just against my personal values but also just generally the wrong thing to do. And for a variety of reasons, I did them.

So my question is: does working in HR make us more unethical than other professions?

Why more than others?

1. We get asked to enact a lot of initiatives that that senior managers should own but don’t want to and some of those initiatives are just wrong. When you raise issues about these, no-one listens and just tells you to get it done. And the initiatives that we put in place impact sometimes significantly on people’s lives.

2. While HR is much more than hiring and firing – we’re actually often the ones that are dismissing and terminating employees. With employment law challenges this can create us doing things which aren’t ethical because you’re trying to minimise risk for the company or get something dealt with quickly.

3. We often don’t have much power to complain about things. When you’re reporting to the CEO and they’re the one telling you to put certain actions in place – the only other option is to talk to the Board. But the Board often have a much better relationship with the CEO and if the CEO is getting results…..

KFC have been in the media for their recent policy of making sure all staff can do all jobs and therefore making a number of disabled workers redundant. Outrage from many quarters ensued and the company has now changed it’s policy. A recent blog by hrmannz said that he was ashamed of our profession.

But what if HR wasn’t at fault? What if HR had argued with the exec team that the policy discriminated and was unfair. But were told to do it anyway?

One of the few things you can do if you disagree strongly with what you’re being asked is to resign. I took a role in a company once from an HR Manager who had resigned on principle. There had been a senior manager who the company had clear evidence was bullying but the CEO had moved him into a new BU with a huge salary increase. She said this was wrong and if he did it she would leave. And she did.

Would I have done the same? I’m not sure. If I’d also resigned would the CEO have changed his approach?

And is it worse to go ahead and do it knowing it’s wrong? Often I find that when asked to do something unethical or wrong, I try and minimise the impact of it so there is a chance to show the executive team the result. What types of things have I been part of?

  • Making roles redundant when the issue was the manager promoting or employing the wrong person (my rule of thumb here is we only do this if there are other benefits to restructuring)
  • Putting bonuses or performance review processes in place that I knew not only wouldn’t work but would disengage people (but HR were under orders from global HR to do it regardless of outcomes)
  • Promoting managers who were bullies (this gets them away from managing people but basically rewards them)
  • Paying out people who haven’t performed because the process to dismiss would take too long

The last one is not being able to tell managers when they are the problem. What happens then is that they don’t come and tell you what’s happening anymore. So to protect their teams, you have to work with them and take them on a journey slowly to try and raise their understanding of how they might be causing the issues in their team.

Are any of these situations ethical? Are they how things should be? Probably not, and it’s us that have to live with doing them. 

I don’t have the answer to how we solve this and would love to hear your thoughts.

4 comments on “Does working in HR make us more unethical?

  1. So I did a quick bit of google research. The New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants has a code of ethics which sets standards for professionalism and integrity. It is tied to legislation and chartered professionals are bound to abide by it. Can a CEO ask a Chartered Accountant to circumvent proper process and willfully mislead people to make the numbers look good? How is asking an HR professional to circumvent process, and wrap ait up as something else, different?

  2. angelaatkins
    October 14, 2013

    Good point Amanda. I don’t see there should be any difference but until HR becomes a chartered profession in NZ, I think we will be seen differently and we’ll continued to get asked to circumvent processes.

  3. Zareen Wainwright
    October 14, 2013

    Thanks for the article Angela, I am glad I’m not alone this is something that has been bothering me recently. As a relatively new HR professional I am finding it challenging when I have to do something that is outside of my own moral code. I also dont have an answer and I am sure it is something that will always be challening throughout my career.

  4. Pingback: #NZLEAD PREVIEW: An ethical HR profession | NZLEAD

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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