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Ethical Decision-Making and the HR Profession

Accountability starts with ourselves

​Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP

​There will be many times throughout our career, especially during tumultuous times, in which ethical decision-making will play a major role in how we lead. Ethical decision-making starts with self-accountability. As HR professionals, we have an obligation to do what's right for employees, the organization and society at large—both when everyone is looking and when no one is looking.

Throughout my career, I have been in situations where doing the right thing required me to put my job on the line. These were not easy choices to make, but they were necessary to change culture, rebuild an organization, or ensure the organization and its people act ethically.

  • Don't just talk about ethics, be about it. Ethical decision-making starts at the top. Model the behavior you want people to engage in throughout the organization. Talking about ethics and conduct means nothing if high-level decision-makers are not held to the same standard as everyone else at lower levels. Neither a member of the board of directors nor the receptionist, for instance, should receive free tickets or other perks for doing business with a vendor.
  • Set expectations and create accountability. Ethical decision-making and behaviors start with expectations. Make sure those expectations are reasonable. There are cases in all industries in which extreme or excessive expectations have led to unethical decisions. Expect accountability up and down the organizational chart. Include an ethics component in performance reviews, goals and objectives.
  • Enforce codes of ethics, conduct and professional responsibility. The organization's code of ethics has to be more than just a plaque on the conference room wall, a policy in the employee handbook or a click-through training module to be signed off on once a year. Everyone needs to live and breathe the code. Leadership should communicate the organization's ethical expectations—and meet those expectations themselves.
  • Define HR's role in ethical decision-making. Practice what you preach. HR professionals should lead and drive ethical decision-making in every workplace, modeling expectations and making sure there is accountability. SHRM offers great templates for developing a code of ethics and business conduct, as well as toolkits for understanding and training in the HR discipline of ethics. SHRM itself has a Code of Ethics that addresses professional responsibility, professional development, ethical leadership, fairness and justice, conflicts of interest, and use of information. 

One of the most important components of the SHRM Body of Applied Skills and Knowledge—the basis for SHRM certification—is the behavioral competency of Ethical Practice. It charges HR professionals "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."

As I write this article, I have just completed teaching the ethics section of a SHRM certification exam prep class. I also recently gave a presentation on organizational misbehavior at a state conference. In my business ethics course, we focus on case studies and scenarios that drive discussion and decision-making. Incorporating real-world stories and examples from our careers adds value to any training or discussion surrounding ethics.

Ethics will impact every HR professional. Doing what's right every time is the model we should embrace and live by throughout our careers. Accountability starts with ourselves. Holding the organization and employees to a higher standard includes HR, first and foremost.

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, is the owner of Burr Consulting, LLC, Elmira, N.Y. and McKinney, Texas, and co-owner of Labor Love, LLC, an HR consultant, adjunct professor, and on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. 


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