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How Human Resources Can Help Build an Ethical Organization
Linda Gravett, Ph.D, SPHR
How many times have you heard statements like these from your employees? A Human Resource practitioner, or anyone who serves in a leadership capacity within an organization, is often faced with multiple choices about how to handle ethical dilemmas. Laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and The Americans With Disabilities Act provide legal guidelines for handling employee relations issues; however, it’s possible to comply with the law and still not be on solid ethical ground. With the assistance of legal counsel we can determine the law. We can partner with Finance and Accounting professionals to calculate the financial impact of decisions. However, determining the right choice when people are involved can be challenging. A complicating issue is the fact that the concept of ethics means different things to different people. The field of Human Resource Management has evolved into a strategic, technical, and measurement-oriented area in the past decade. The field will continue to grow in sophistication and complexity as a reflection of the world in the 21st century, presenting difficult ethical dilemmas. This article describes what an ethical organization looks like; indicators of a weak ethics system; and the Human Resource professional’s potential to contribute to the development of an ethical organization.
What An “Ethical Organization” Looks Like.
Individuals within an organization can hold and practice core values; however, that doesn’t mean that the organization as a whole is ethical. To build an ethical organization, its leadership must establish, publish, and model the company’s core values. While each organization should establish its own ethical framework, I suggest that two cornerstones must be in place in order to build an ethical organization: mutual trust and respect. In personal interviews conducted with 100 Human Resource practitioners across the United States in 1999 and 2000, these two characteristics surfaced time and again as critical components of
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are recognized and rewarded for their contributions. perhaps employees blame everyone else. When goals aren’t achieved. “This company is the best place to work in the county!” “The promotion path here is extremely fast. optimistic (possibly untrue) statements to achieve a short-term result. When customer complaints occur. In an organization where trust is prevalent. this is a red flag that failure may not be tolerated and it’s necessary to hide mistakes or errors in judgment. how do people in the organization respond? If common excuses are. “I assigned that to a member of my staff – I don’t know what’s happening”. Alternatives are discussed freely. If “scapegoating” is a common phenomenon in your culture. Coworkers share their ideas and concerns. Figure 1 depicts a high trust – mutual respect organization. and complete. timely.How Human Resources Can Help Build an Ethical Organization http://www. When the time comes to make a decision and stand by that decision or action. In an organization in which respect is a demonstrated value.com/Articles/August2002. The result is that employees must be prepared to shift gears and learn new skills or serve on various work teams to complete projects. there may always seem to be someone’s else’s doorstep on which the lay the fault. information is accurate. this is an indicator of abdication behavior. “Turf Guarding”. In today’s rapidly changing marketplace. There are clues within the organizational culture if trust and respect are not part of the cultural fabric. If an organization has employees that hoard information and 2 of 5 10/9/2011 6:30 PM . Period. this is an indicator of a weak ethics system. People at all levels accept suggestions for ways to improve the work. “I’m not aware of any problems – I asked Joe to handle that” or. if they have them.e-hresources. employees and managers treat each other with dignity and make it known that they care about the work they perform. and clear and concrete goals are developed and shared across the organization. Individual differences and perspectives are appreciated and promoted. or every other department. Members of an ethical organization accept responsibility for themselves and their direct reports. All employees. Here are some indicators of a weak ethics system: “Scapegoating”. Abdicating Responsibility. The organization’s leadership fosters initiative and creativity. companies must be highly flexible to meet customer demands. regardless of their position.” “We’ll be going public within the year!” Are managers using these kinds of statements frequently without knowing whether they’re really true? If the norm is making brash. Overpromising.htm ethical organizations.
he or she thinks about a person whose opinion is highly valued and asks. People about to make a decision or engage in a behavior that’s questionable should ask themselves. This is a physical. Prior to making a decision or engaging in a behavior. This kind of behavior indicates that people don’t trust their knowledge or expertise in someone else’s hands. Underachieving. “can I accept public review of this decision or behavior?” What if an article about my actions would be published in the local newspaper or headlined in the evening news? Decisions or actions must be defensible in a public forum. productivity may suffer and resentment can build. but the underlying values that precipitated an action are clear. Human Resource professionals can. When someone uses the authority test.How Human Resources Can Help Build an Ethical Organization http://www. “what would that person think about how I reacted to this challenge?” The authority can be a mentor. a teacher. Human Resource professionals are in a unique position to observe the organization’s ethics and serve as a catalyst for change if the ethics system is weak. a trusted peer. Are employees allowed to barely “get by” and still be rewarded with a paycheck and even promotions? Is mediocrity accepted because it’s too difficult to fire people who aren’t really competent? If an organization takes the easy way out and tolerates employees who are negative and only partially productive. I’ve concluded that there are three tests individuals can use for making a decision. How can one determine if an action he or she is planning to take is “ethical”? After reading Lawrence Kohlberg’s research about stages of moral development. involuntary reaction to stressful situations that causes people to take notice of what they’re about to say or do. and should.htm jealously guard their turf for any reason. Human Resource professionals are likely to be challenged daily with issues 3 of 5 10/9/2011 6:30 PM . This instinct is important and should be trusted. some people get “butterflies” in their stomach. Test #2: The Authority Test. serve as role models for the organization’s core values.com/Articles/August2002. long-term success is jeopardized. Perhaps there’s a concern about the impact of an action on employees or coworkers. Test #3: The Public Scrutiny Test. Test #1: The Butterfly Test. for it’s a sign that it’s necessary to pause and reflect on one’s own and the organization’s values. This isn’t to say that every single person would agree with the decision made or actions taken. or anyone viewed as competent in the area in question. Three Ethics Tests for Individuals. “what would that person do in a similar situation?” or. This uncertainty may be precipitated by doubts that a proposed action is the best for all stakeholders.e-hresources.
the 2000 National Business Ethics Survey finds that employees have high expectations for their organizations. in the basic ways that business is handled. 4 of 5 10/9/2011 6:30 PM . employees will “make it up” as they go along when faced with ethical dilemmas.e-hresources. may affect the productivity. By the way. Informal meetings and accessibility are two ways that supervisors and HR practitioners can keep the channels of communication flowing. This is especially true when organizations are weathering difficult times. although one person – or one department – cannot singlehandedly change a culture that has some of the indicators of a weak ethics system mentioned earlier in this article. Employees will learn to trust and respect each other and managers only if they observe characteristics that merit that trust and respect. ongoing and open communication systems must be in place to ensure a forum for discussion exists regarding ethical issues. A written Code of Ethics cannot be institutionalized unless organization leaders show their respect for individuals and the organization by engaging in legal and moral behaviors. Each employee must understand his or her role in carrying out the organization’s values. that is.How Human Resources Can Help Build an Ethical Organization http://www.” After expectations are initially established. The choices that HR professionals make. not just what is profitable. Does your organization have a Code of Ethics or Statement of Core Values? Supervisors and managers in organizations are often afforded a level of respect from employees because of their leadership position. Employees learn these ways of doing business through observing coworkers and leaders. or guide others to make. An organization’s core values are manifested by its culture.htm that present ethical dilemmas. Expectations around standards of behavior in everyday situations must be established and enforced. if not always in terms of title. as well.com/Articles/August2002. and the public image of their organization. If no expectations are established and effectively communicated. I believe that HR practitioners can be a driver for building a strong ethical foundation. I believe that HR professionals are in leadership roles by virtue of their visibility and influence. such as mergers or acquisitions. The stories you tell and the events that you comment about illustrate what matters to you and what you consider acceptable behavior. Ninety percent say they expect their organizations to do “what is right. Human Resources can influence organizational culture. profitability. Putting a Code of Ethics in place and encouraging leaders to model desired behaviors are important steps toward creating an ethical organization. Employees look to the leadership as role models to guide their own behavior. such as how decisions are made and how rewards are distributed. The Human Resource Professional’s Responsibilities.
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