The job of HR is often characterised by moral dilemma. Ethics expert Clare Payne identifies these grey areas and points out how things are changing.
Is being good at your job compatible with being a good person? You’d hope the answer was an emphatic yes, but the truth is some HR professionals have been dismissed for standing up for what they believed was right – HRM has heard from more than a few of them.
But Clare Payne is of the opinion that things are changing. Recognised as a leading voice on the topic of business ethics, Payne is a former employment lawyer and co-author of A Matter of Trust: The Practice of Ethics in Finance. But her thoughts and writing extend beyond the finance industry, she also addresses the ethical dilemmas of HR.
Dealing with unpleasant behaviours
When it comes to dealing with an employee accused of being a sexual harasser or a bully, there’s a strong temptation in some organisations to use legal processes and payouts to quickly shut it down. They either hush up the victims, or usher the offender out of the workforce.
Instances of this behaviour are uncovered all the time. In December last year, it was revealed that media company Vice has a history of doing both. It settled with complaining employees – holding them to non-disclosure agreements – and also fired managers accused of harassment.
Given the current environment, this line of action risks more than your organisation’s reputation, says Payne.
“Not unlike the Catholic Church, you are just allowing someone to go on and offend again,” she says. Not only could this be a potential source of liability, it’s also a waste of company resources. Putting her employment lawyer hat on, she says it’s always better to go through the right processes rather than the quick fix.
“It costs a company more eventually, and the person perhaps won’t learn a lesson. They’ll actually be rewarded. They get a big payout and everybody is under confidentiality agreements so nobody finds out what happens. Then they go out and get a new job.”
Stuck in the middle
Because of the position as an intermediary between an organisation and its employees, HR can find itself in a quandary when the executive wants to act unethically. It’s something representatives from the Australian HR Institute have spoken about before, arguing that HR’s allegiance is to the company and not to any boss.
“There’s always been this tension because HR is obviously employed by the company and yet they should have a role to represent the staff and the people. But sometimes those two stakeholders can be in conflict,” says Payne. “We’ve seen HR giving a lot of attention to the employer rather than to the staff. And I think that’s being reconsidered now.
“That’s the same with any profession. Finance has given too much attention to the shareholder as the primary stakeholder over the customer. When we look at ethics, we look across the stakeholders and work out how to manage their interests and their needs and how to make sure they’re prioritised in a fair way. That’s the dilemma for HR at the moment.”
Individual reputational damage, exposed more easily now on social media, means that there is now a personal, career-minded reason why behaving ethically is the right choice.
“We’re into the age of individual accountability. Things stick with the individual. If they’re seen to be unfair or unethical, then that will stay with them regardless of whether they were just doing what they were told,” says Payne. “People have to think about what they want to be known for.”
Payne’s talk at the upcoming AHRI State Conference in Darwin will have a focus on how language frames and influences ethics. “A lot of the language of business that we’ve come to accept – and the language of management – actually skews our moral compass,” says Payne.
As an example she brings up redundancies. There are a plethora of euphemisms from “downsizing”, “smartsizing” and “rightsizing” to “workforce optimisation”.
“If the people that are managing redundancy think about it as ‘workforce optimisation’ they will probably have less empathy for the person going through the process. Because they’re thinking with the company hat on that this is a great thing [for the business]. Whereas it could be the worst thing to happen to someone’s life.”
What’s in a name
But it’s not just how we label processes that can take us off track. “Just in itself I find ‘human resources’ quite an offensive term. The most people-focussed area refers to people as resources,” says Payne.
Obviously discussing the best and worst names for HR can often get heated, but it’s not just the name Payne finds troubling.
“What happens is, where there’s people-oriented areas of business – be it corporate social responsibility or environmental social governance – they get reduced to an acronym. Like HR. Or employee relations becomes ER.”
A lot of HR professionals would sympathise with this. There are more than a few examples of HR acronyms they could rattle off, including PIPs (performance improvement programs), EAPs (employee assistance programs) and KPIs (key performance indicators).
“HR and employment practices in general are just riddled with acronyms. And in a way that takes the human element out of the most human aspects of business,” says Payne.
Hear leading ethics expert Clare Payne, and other HR leaders and experts at the AHRI State Conference in Darwin on Thursday 12 April. Early bird registration closes Thursday 15 March.