Winning at All Costs?

HR can face ethical challenges in high-pressure situations. Here’s how to be successful while playing by the rules

By Joseph A. Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP Apr 6, 2017
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​HR professionals at some companies have struggled to acquire and foster great talent in a highly competitive business world while maintaining a highly ethical culture. Recent headlines about the departures of several executives from Uber highlight this challenge (as do other news stories over the past year, running the gamut from pharmaceutical price-gouging to exploding cellphones). Applying the competency of Ethical Practice to talent management can be a tricky game. How the game is played can make or break an organization.

HR helps to build an engaging, enticing and productive organizational culture and, at the same time—in a tough Catch-22 for the profession—has the responsibility to serve as a model for ethical behavior and to monitor and warn of ethical risks to the organization. It is difficult yet necessary for an HR professional to act as a moral and ethical compass while creating an enjoyable and rewarding climate for employees. Anyone in HR who is uncomfortable with this challenge may want to consider another field.

Ensuring both success and ethical behavior across the entire organization can be particularly difficult when it comes to bringing in and managing high-potential talent. There are at least three tricky parts to this dual role for HR:

  1. Clearly understanding the line between ethical and unethical behavior in the organization, applying ethics to your own role, and communicating ethical expectations clearly to top talent.
  2. As an HR professional, not letting the potential for high-reward outcomes blind you to ethical lapses.
  3. Mustering the courage to uphold the ethical standards of HR and the organization despite significant pressure from powerful stakeholders.

The SHRM Competency Model defines Ethical Practice as "the knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics needed to maintain high levels of personal and professional integrity, and to act as an ethical agent who promotes core values, integrity and accountability throughout the organization." In other words, it is HR's responsibility to model as well as maintain the organization's ethical standards. As we all know, this is easier said than done. What's more, SHRM research indicates that Ethical Practice is the competency considered by the majority of HR professionals as most critical to success regardless of career level.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, John Boudreau,  professor and research director at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, discussed Uber's woes. One way for HR to stand firmly for ethics in the face of pressure, he suggested, is for corporate leaders to stop treating HR as one-dimensional or as having a strictly transactional function such as recruiting that is prioritized over legal compliance or other equally important functions. Uber and many other start-ups are learning such lessons too late, after ethical lapses have done their damage.

When top corporate leadership gives HR the backing it needs to serve in a more strategic role, HR professionals will have more confidence making tough ethical decisions that may go against other stakeholders' interests. But what do you do if your organization's leadership is unable to give HR that backing? Or what if your HR department has leadership's backing, but you still struggle with stakeholder pressures?

Use your competencies in Critical Evaluation and Consultation to address situations in which leaders struggle to control the ethical behavior of staff. First, apply Critical Evaluation: assess the corporate culture and areas of possible ethical concern and identify gaps in leaders' skills in managing their employees' ethical behavior. Second, engage in Consultation: provide strategic guidance to those leaders about potential consequences to the organization of unethical behavior (theirs or their employees') and identify ways to discourage the bad and encourage the good.

Despite mounting pressures in the war for talent, the HR department can be a bedrock of ethical practice in an organization. Build it by effectively selecting, training and managing the performance of HR staff. Use your understanding of the Ethical Practice competency to develop criteria to hire, develop and evaluate your HR team—and hold them to higher expectations of ethical performance than the rest of the organization.

Sorry, HR, no matter how many policies, regulations, standards, guidelines and laws we put into place, ethical lapses in organizations will never go away, nor will there be 100-percent definitive answers about what is ethically right and wrong. Yes, some behaviors are clear-cut (for example, don't steal from the cash drawer), but some will always be prone to interpretation (is it OK to have a bottle of wine in one's desk if there's no policy against it?).

We're all human, and humans make mistakes. The ability to make the right choice can be clouded by the flash and shine of high-potential talent and the promise of reward. If HR builds individual and organizational proficiencies in ethical competencies, however, that's less likely to happen. As SHRM-certified professionals, let's work to ensure that our organizations don't make headlines for the wrong reasons.

Joseph A. Jones, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is SHRM's director of HR competencies and resources research. 

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