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Is It HR's Job to Create an Ethical Culture?

Two HR experts debate the issue.

HR must be responsible for developing the right environment. 

WinklerWe needn’t look any further than SHRM’s own competency model—a research-based rubric of knowledge, skills, behaviors and proficiency standards for HR professionals at every level—to find evidence that creating an ethical culture falls squarely within HR’s purview. The model, which is the foundation for SHRM’s HR certifications, features “Ethical Practice” as one of its nine required competencies. Among the behaviors a practitioner needs to master within this competency is “Drives the corporate ethical environment.”  

And bulleted under the proficiency standards for mid-level HR professionals are “Influences others to behave in an ethical manner” and “Performs as an ethical role model and positively influences managerial integrity and accountability.” Senior HR leaders are expected to do even more to promote an ethical environment. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as HR already has its hands on all levers of culture. 

The human resources generalist or manager can hardly go a day without stumbling upon issues that influence the organization’s ethics: favoritism in hiring and promotion, fairness in disciplinary actions, pay equity, inclusiveness in benefits design, and employee safety. And the high-profile sexual harassment cases that have dominated the news are a key example of how toxic workplace environments can contribute to egregious—and unlawful—behavior. 

Indeed, nearly everything HR touches contributes to culture: recruiting standards, onboarding content, performance-management criteria, executive development, diversity activities and organizational assessments. So the relevant question isn’t whether HR professionals should create an ethical culture; rather, it’s how they should go about doing so—implicitly or explicitly.

I would argue the latter. Typically, the organizations that are recognized as the most ethical are those that make ethics an explicit part of everything they do. Good behavior is built into their mission statements; it’s part of how they hire people; it’s considered in promotion decisions; and it’s recognized, measured and made part of the compensation program. That’s all HR stuff. That’s our stuff.

And what about ethical failures? We read weekly about fraud, environmental infractions and sexual predation. When the media storm ends, who does management ask to uncover the root causes of the misbehavior and remediate? It’s mostly HR—usually in collaboration with other players. Certainly if we are responsible for repairing ethical performance, we also play a key role in driving it.

Still, I understand why HR professionals may not want the responsibility for crafting an ethical culture. After serving in HR for Southern Co.—a utility holding company in Atlanta—for 25 years, I moved over to “Ethics and Compliance” in the legal department. “If it’s Legal’s job, why should it also be HR’s?” I was asked. 

Here’s the answer: because no single person or group can tackle this alone. HR professionals control so many aspects of culture, and they are the ones who best understand human behavior and workforce dynamics. They must learn the language of ethics and then integrate it into their daily work. For some it will be a new frontier. But most will realize that crafting an environment in which people are motivated to do the right thing is part of what they already do every day. 

Howard Winkler is a consultant in human capital and ethics in Mineral Bluff, Ga. He is the former HR strategy director for Southern Co., a global energy company in Atlanta. He now serves as board chair of the Better Business Bureau’s Institute for Marketplace Trust.

[SHRM members'-only Q&A: Why would an employer want to establish a whistleblower or ethics hotline?]

It’s the executive team’s job to set the right tone.

LeeAn ethical workplace must come from the top. That means the CEO creates the culture and instills it in the leadership team, which in turn infuses it throughout the rest of the organization. 

There must be a circle of trust among all members of the senior team. That said, when a leader—or employee—becomes aware of a potentially unethical situation or inappropriate action, no one should think twice before contacting human resources for advice and guidance. 

Unfortunately, however, there are times when HR is not notified about allegations of bad behavior. For example, during the recent explosion of sexual harassment allegations by women against their male bosses, I frequently heard the refrain, “Where was HR when all of this was going on?” Being an HR practitioner for 35 years, I admit to wondering the same thing at times. 

But I know from experience that there are plenty of companies where the managers and executives operate under the belief that the less HR knows, the better. Of course, the leaders don’t come right out and say that, but they create a culture that communicates it for them. Now, we all know that this isn’t the best way for any business to proceed. Human resources professionals work best as strategic advisors, and they have a duty to protect employees and the organization. Whatever is going on, HR should be in a position to know about it. 

When bad behavior comes to light, it is easy to point fingers at HR and suggest we weren’t doing our jobs. But being of good character must be enforced and reinforced daily by an organization’s leadership. Moreover, if the top executives are privy to unethical conduct—from executives or elsewhere in the company—and they don’t trust HR enough to tell us, there is only so much we can do to compensate. After all, we don’t know what we don’t know.  

I find it interesting that human resources is responsible for training all employees on sexual and other forms of harassment, and yet executives generally excuse themselves from this instruction. That’s unfortunate, because if the headlines are any indication, those in powerful top roles may need the guidance the most. 

Giving HR a role among senior leadership can help build a better culture. I firmly believe that executive teams that include HR are stronger for it. 

Years ago, HR was seen largely as an administrative function. It has taken—and will continue to take—some executives a bit more time to figure out the importance of operating in an ethical manner and to forge the right partnerships to do that. 

Of course, that’s not to say that HR professionals should be placed on executive teams only as a “front.” Executives should not say one thing and do another. I have worked for leaders who embrace and value the expertise of HR. But there are also those who don’t want to cede any control. They cling to their power and feel they don’t need anyone else’s advice … until it is too late. Once relationships are damaged, trust is not so easy to win back. 

Ethical behavior is critical to organizational success. One way to reinforce a culture of doing the right thing is by including HR on the executive team. While it’s not up to HR professionals to create an ethical environment, they can help maintain one. And then hopefully no one will ever get the opportunity to ask, “Where was HR?”

Joanne Lee, SHRM-SCP, is vice president of HR for N.K.S. Distributors Inc., in New Castle, Del., and a member of SHRM’s Special Expertise Panel on Ethics/Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

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