Practice Makes Proficient: Be an ‘Ethical Agent’ in the Workplace

The why and how of developing the Ethical Practice competency

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP March 14, 2019
Practice Makes Proficient: Be an ‘Ethical Agent’ in the Workplace

​Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP

​An HR professional is expected to act as an "ethical agent" in the workplace, according to the definition of Ethical Practice in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (BoCK). Yet many critics have called out the HR profession, most recently when revelations of systemic #MeToo harassment have surfaced. "Where was HR?" they said.

A colleague's organization just fired a "bad" HR person with a long history of favoritism in granting leave and hiring unqualified friends. My colleague says he knows and respects me as a "good" HR person. While misdeeds seem to get broadcast far and wide, if HR professionals want cooperation and respect from employees and managers, he says, we should more actively promote the ethical things we do.

The SHRM BoCK describes Ethical Practice in terms of "maintain[ing] high levels of personal and professional integrity, and [acting] as an ethical agent who promotes core values, integrity and accountability throughout the organization." This behavioral competency's importance to HR is clear, but how do you develop it? How do you grow your "personal and professional integrity" to effectively navigate the conflicts of your responsibilities as an HR practitioner, private citizen, colleague and friend?

Ethical practice in HR involves making hard decisions and balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the employees. For me, that is what HR is all about. HR professionals often walk a fine line between legal and ethical actions, so it is critical to develop our proficiency in Ethical Practice if we expect to be successful. Developing this competency involves practice as well as self-examination, and (like all the other competencies) working on ourselves!

Approaches to Developing Proficiency in Ethical Practice

On the job:

  • Find an executive whose values and principles you admire. Ask your manager to invite that person to speak to your department about the value of business ethics.
  • Identify trustworthy co-workers. Find out what they do to earn others' trust and model your behavior on theirs.
  • Review and discuss with co-workers your company's policies on ethics, privacy and confidentiality.
  • Develop a presentation on the return on investment of ethical business practices.
  • Review codes of ethics (available for SHRM members). Suggest a corporate code of ethics for your organization that combines those ideas.
  • If your organization has not identified its core values, volunteer to lead a team that establishes them.
  • When you are faced with a difficult ethical decision, ask yourself:
    • Is it legal? Does it violate a company policy?
    • Are all people involved being treated fairly?
    • Will I be proud of my actions?
  • Think about whether your personal ethics align with your organization's ethics. Are you in the right place?


Get to know someone who has successfully dealt with difficult and unpopular decisions. Ask the person to coach you in that regard.

Educational activities:

Look for opportunities that involve interaction with others. Plan how you will apply what you learn. Here are just a few examples.

Reading and research:

Again, plan how you will apply what you learn on your own.

  • Books:
    • The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It (Harvard University Press, 2014) by David Weil.
    • Accountability: Freedom and Responsibility Without Control (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002) by Rob Lebow and Randy Spitzer.
    • Managing Business Ethics, Straight Talk about How to Do It Right (Wiley, 2010) by Linda K. Trevino and Katherine A. Nelson.
  • The Global Business Ethics Survey, a longitudinal study of workplace behavior conducted annually by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative.
  • Periodicals:

Professional and community activities:

  • Volunteer for a nonprofit focused on addressing an ethical or social issue that you care about, such as homelessness or domestic violence.
  • Get involved with the Institute for Global Ethics.
  • Utilize SHRM resources:
    • Attend conferences, workshops, virtual events and online programs.

Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).


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