From Readers - Ethics Story Raises Issues and Answers

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HR Magazine, May 2006 Unfortunately, the recent article on The Ethics Squeeze (March) left more questions than answers. I am in a similar situation as the Eleven Who Stood and Delivered. I find little encouragement in the fact that others are going through similar, unacceptable situations.

The question for me is, Who is holding the C-suite accountable? Since, in many cases, HR is not at the table, HR has little to no influence on the ethical actions of the CEO or CFO. Therefore, these individuals are operating as a law unto themselves.

A solution is possible, but perhaps a little radical: If HR is responsible for the corporate culture, HR should have dotted line reporting responsibility to the board of directors. Failing that, boards must take responsibility for ensuring that their CEOs are operating ethically. Since CEOs are capable of placing undue pressure on employees during spot inspections and audits, I prefer the first option.

A third option exists, although it may not be popular with traditional HR practitioners: Place responsibility for corporate culture and ethics into a new category separate from HR and the C-suite, and fully accountable to the board.

Whichever solution is chosen, one thing is clear change is necessary. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, I am the future of HR: on the front lines of Generation X, with a bachelors degree in business management and SPHR certification. Unfortunately, if I am unable to find an ethical workplace that will hire me, I may well be forced to change careers just another former HR professional disillusioned by the gap between ethical standards and ethical realities.

Graham G. Barker, SPHR
Seminole, Fla.

I was disappointed with the article The Ethics Squeeze. First of all, it is unrealistic to think that all companies operate above board. Taking this into consideration, it seems to me that the job seekers in this piece also had a responsibility to determine if the job and the company would be a career fit. From the article, it does not appear that this occurred.

Had I been interviewing for those companies, I could think of a few carefully worded questions to ask, like You know, with all the unethical business dealings covered in the media, I always wonder what HR’s involvement was in trying to fix the problems. I’m sure your company is fine, but if I’m hired and I discover illegal/unethical employment practices, would you expect me to do what’s right, even though it might not be popular? What kind of support would I get from my manager and/or the senior management team in these instances?

In most cases, interviewers will probably give the politically correct answer even if they know it is not true. Therefore, I would be sure that interviewers see that I am documenting their answers, and I would follow up with a statement like Good. That’s a deal-breaker for me. I would never want to work for a company that would ask me to do something illegal/unethical.

Then, if I don’t get the job, it might be because this is exactly what the company was looking for. Because I made my position clear up front, the company knows I’m not the candidate they want.

However, if I accept the position and they ask me to do something illegal/unethical, I would pull out my interview notes and ask, When I interviewed for this job, I specifically asked these questions and you (my manager) said X. Now I’m being asked to do Y. Why was I considered for this position even after I stated in the interview that this was a deal-breaker? From this article, it appears that the candidates did not do a good job of interviewing. As we know, the selection process is a two-way street. Giving up on the HR profession after only one incident with one company appears to me to be a cop-out. What happened to taking personal responsibility for the results of a two-way interview process, learning from a tragic situation and moving on to the next HR challenge?

Claudia Foreman, SPHR
Tallahassee, Fla.

The Ethics Squeeze documented repeatedly that HR officials often find themselves in a corner out there alone in many ways when it comes to upholding ethical standards because the most senior officials are either part of the problem or else refuse to address it.

An answer, especially for companies with a board of directors, is the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act requirement that publicly traded companies put in place a system enabling employees to report workplace ethics problems directly to the audit committee of the board, effectively skirting recalcitrant senior managers.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to set up a 24/7 hotline to receive employee calls, reports of which go to the chairperson of the firms audit committee. Anonymity is offered and non-retaliation promised. HR officials, just as all other employees, could find the ability to report ethics problems directly to the board a helpful tool. Increasingly, this reporting process is becoming a best practice even for privately held companies and nonprofits, which are not mandated by SOX to provide it.

Larry J. Tomayko
Fredericksburg, Va.

In the current issue you have a major article on ethics. In that same issue, you have a review of a book written by a member of your Board of Directors. I don’t believe you should be reviewing books written by your board or management (and this book may well be excellent, or may not be), and I think this is an example of why ethics are so difficult to apply in organizational America: They are only necessary for someone else!

Alan Weiss
East Greenwich, R.I.

Editors Note: Publications often review or cover books written by their own staff members or affiliated officials. It is important to disclose any connection, as we did.

Congratulations on an outstanding article on the ethical dilemmas faced regularly by HR professionals. The article had particular meaning for me since at a former employer I felt some of the same ethical pains that were discussed.

It’s not enough that we are faced with these issues daily, but the fact that we in HR are ultimately held accountable for all of this stuff is what’s more infuriating to me. In the last few years, HR has become what I like to call the repository of accountability. We are accountable for absolutely everything that goes on at our organizations, despite the fact that often times we have very little if any knowledge of and control over the objectionable behavior. Often those perpetrating such behavior are able to skate through the system unscathed.

The more our state and federal legislators churn out the laws for us to manage, the more we get heaped on our backs. It’s no wonder that many good, hardworking and learned HR professionals are thinking of bailing out!

Anthony J. Zagarino, PHR
Berkeley Heights, N.J.

Because of the nature of my comments, I ask that my name be omitted.

I enjoyed the recent article about ethics and HR. It was timely and provided a wide variety of interesting experiences. However, you missed an opportunity to demonstrate that even the profession of human resources is not exempt from committing ethics violations. The focus of the article was on HR professionals and their involvement in identifying and trying to fix ethics issues in their organization.

The fact is, even HR professionals can violate a company code of conduct. I lost my job as a result of a few senior-level HR professionals abusing their position of power in HR. HR is usually looked at as the area that watches other business units. In my case, no one was watching HR.

I have been in HR for 14 years, 11 with my most recent company. Because HR handles terminations and has to approve terminations for other business units, no one had to sign off on a termination within HR. I was quickly and quietly terminated for uncovering illegal hiring practices and special liberties HR was taking with a bonus program. HR does not have to run their terminations past anyone, so after I reported the violations of those in HR, I was let go and had no recourse to appeal.

In four days, after an 11-year career with no previous performance issues, I was gone. Even the termination document they wrote was full of false information. Normally, HR approves the written termination document. In this case, no one had to approve mine since I was in HR.

So, keep that in mind. The HR profession should not be portrayed as being in an ivory tower when it comes to ethics. They may watch the organization, but who watches them?

Name withheld
Palatine, Ill.

Loved the ethics article. These things are so true and unfortunately happen all too often. One thing I would have liked to see, however, is how do we deal with it? Where do we go, who do we report it to? Is there a way to mediate or resolve the situation without having to resign?

Renee A. McNally
Churchville, Md.

Your article on The Ethics Squeeze really hit home. After 23 years in a major company where I had worked my way to a high-level position, I was branded as uncooperative and difficult to work with when I refused to share privileged salary information with an internal client. That set me up for a write-up and a layoff before less-experienced and less-credentialed HR staffers. I was then branded as a problem employee and unable to return to my field for over a year. I am now working in HR at another company and consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Name withheld
Phoenix

Pictures of Diversity

I appreciated your articles in February on diversity, especially Desda Moss preview and Pamela Babcocks cover story, Detecting Hidden Bias, citing the study demonstrating that blacks, the elderly, the disabled and the overweight were subject to the highest levels of bias. As an overweight woman, I know firsthand the effects of such bias.

What struck me were the pictures accompanying the article. The group was a typical picture of diversity: black, white and Asian. (The white woman may have been intended to picture elderly but I don’t agree she looks great!)

As pictures are such a powerful force to identify and initiate change, I would like to see HR Magazine go beyond the typical picture of diversity and show an overweight (at least 50 pounds) HR manager in a business suit, a disabled HR manager with a cane or service animal, an elderly HR manager still full of vitality.

As the article discusses, competence and contribution come in all sorts of employee packages. Picturing such differences will help us all recognize these biases and guard against their influence in employment decision-making.

Dana Mortimer
Prosser, Wash.

Thank you for the well-written article Detecting Hidden Bias in the February issue. The Harvard Implicit Association Test is an excellent instrument. There is an important aspect of application to be considered regarding this or any bias training. Are the intended recipients developmentally ready so that the training will have a constructive effect, or will it generate backlash?

This is best understood in terms of Milton Bennetts Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity and the related Intercultural Development Inventory measurement instrument. (References: www.intercultural.org/, www.MDBGroup.com/idi_background.htm). People with a very ethnocentric worldview who are unaware of cultural difference or who experience cultural difference as threatening (Denial or Defense in Bennetts model) may react negatively to hidden bias training. When at the Denial or Defense stages, people likely will need other development to prepare for the issues they will confront in the bias training.

A holistic approach that meets people at their current stage of intercultural sensitivity and provides focused developmental support to build their skill and competence will have the best effect. In this way, bias training can be implemented when it has the greatest constructive potential while minimizing the potential for backlash.

Peter Bye
Livingston, N.J.

HR Magazine welcomes letters from readers. Submitted letters are subject to editing and are the property of the magazine. To submit a letter, visit our web site at www.shrm.org/hrmagazine/ contact or fax us at (703) 535-6489. contact or fax us at (703) 535-6489. contact or fax us at (703) 535-6489. contact or fax us at (703) 535-6489.

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