Encouraging and Nurturing an Ethical Culture: Roles and Responsibilities of the HR Executive

Human resources executives face a unique challenge with regard to the creation of an ethical culture within their organizations. While HR executives are high-level management employees of the organization and thus must “toe the company line,” the nature of the human resources role requires that they also serve as unofficial ombudsmen and agents for the rank-and-file employees. As a result, they must often walk a fine line between doing what is best for the employees and what benefits the company as a whole.

According to Linda Gravett, Ph.D., SPHR, of e-HResources.com, HR professionals bear the responsibility of serving as role models for the organization’s core values. However, they must also be a “catalyst for change” if the organization’s approach to ethics is inadequate or weak. This may require HR professionals to ask the tough questions of other company executives if they believe the organization is falling short in terms of ethics, even at the risk of disrupting the status quo.

Legal Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Ethical

It is also important for HR executives to understand that, just because a company practice complies with legal requirements, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is ethical. While clear-cut laws are in place to ensure compliance in areas such as discrimination and harassment, an organization’s guidelines constituting what is ethical may be much more ambiguous.

According to Dr. James O’Toole, a Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, an important question that every organization must answer is this: To what extent in the HR arena is legal compliance a sufficient standard for ethical behavior? The HR executive plays a critical role in answering this question and determining whether the company is truly acting in an ethical manner or simply adhering to the letter of the law.

Specific HR Responsibilities

Dr. Gravett states that HR executives have two key ethical responsibilities within an organization. Initially, they must establish the ethical expectations for the organization, which they can accomplish by ensuring that a code of ethics and an ethics officer are in place and by encouraging leaders throughout the organization to service as ethical role models.

Secondly, once the expectations have been established, they must create and implement ongoing and open systems of communications so that a forum exists for dialogue concerning ethics. This can be accomplished through informal meetings between supervisors and HR practitioners, as well as being certain that HR professionals are always accessible to the management team.

Three Key HR Practices that Can Foster an Ethical Environment

What else can HR executives do to help establish an ethical culture in their organizations? The results of the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center can shed some light.

According to the survey, while 45 percent of respondents said they witnessed illegal or unethical behavior at work, only about two-thirds of these employees actually reported what they saw. An addendum to the NBES report entitled Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower indicates that HR executives can encourage more employees to step forward, thus helping to create a more ethical environment, by focusing on three key areas:

1. Increasing employee engagement. According to the survey results, 72 percent of strongly engaged or engaged employees said they are likely to report ethical violations, compared to only 55 percent of weakly engaged or completely disengaged employees.

2. Ensuring employee efforts to report ethical problems are recognized and rewarded. While 72 percent of respondents said they would report a problem if they feel their company would reward their efforts, only 57 percent said they would do so if their conduct would not be rewarded.

3. Helping employees feel valued and supported in workplace. According to the survey, 72 percent of workers who feel that their workplace is a close-knit community said they would be willing to report ethical problems, while only 58 percent of workers who felt the opposite about their work environment indicated they would do so.

For the text of Dr. James O’Toole’s speech entitled “Ethical Challenges in Human Resources” given to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership at Santa Clara University, click here.

Related Posts

Enter your keyword