Home' HR Monthly : December 2017 Contents December/January 2018 HRM magazine 23
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE ETHICS CENTRE
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR BUSINESS ETHICS & RESPONSIBLE
LEADERSHIP, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA
INDUSTRY FELLOW, RMIT UNIVERSITY
Hu man Resource Management is fundamentally a moral endeavour,
because it has to do with the interactions of people, people and
organisations and the organisation’s actions and inactions that
affect its people. It also has to do with the conduct of its people (the
employees), as well as their treatment.
While HRM has done well in relation to compliance, progress on
measuring what matters and addressing shortfalls, is less speedy.
Lately, a lot of attention has steered towards culture because of its
proven and accepted influence on behaviou r. Yet, few organisations
measure culture and track their ethical climate. Even fewer understand
their sub-cultu res and their misconduct risk hot-spots. If culture is
important, and if it is better at predicting what people would do rather
than the kind of people they are, then why not invest in perfecting
its measurement and ensuring we know ou r culture as accu rately as
headcou nts and sales figu res?
We have ample evidence of the influence of culture, and the work
environment more broadly, on people’s behaviour and the influence
of the CEO on the work environment. HRM has the challenging task
of creating an environment where people are expected to do the right
thing and are rewarded for it, are respected and can f lourish. To a
great ex tent, this requires managing the CEO, because of the influence
they exert on the work environment.
To use the language of the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, we can’t
have a sweet cucumber in a barrel of vinegar. So we can’t expect
ethical behaviour in an organisation where the ends and means are
sour. A nd the CEO influences greatly what is in the barrel.
Of course, human beings have limitations and biases. H R has to
deal with the challenge of remaining impartial and not succumbing to
overweening influence from the CEO when that influence undermines
HR’s ability to fulfil its obligations to the whole organisation.
HR should resist the often automatic attribution of blame to
individual bad apples ... HR should be able to convince the CEO and
enable the organisation to focus on identifying and measuring what
matters, address shortcomings and respect employees as people, not
mere hands, brains and skills.
The world of business has changed profoundly in the past two decades,
not just technologically but morally. CEOs and their organisations are
under more scrutiny than ever following high-profile scandals in the
early 2000s and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 .
More recent cases of misconduct have involved Samsung, the car
industry emission scandal at Volkswagen, and the exclusion of British
PR firm Bell Pottinger from its industry body in London following
revelations that it had deliberately stirred racial tensions in South Africa
favouring the Gupta business clan.
Rightly, stakeholders demand better from business leaders. Indeed,
CEOs have become the ‘chief ethics officers’ of their organisations, and
the ascent and omnipresence of social media means that they operate in
an environment of contested values.
In order to thrive and survive in such an environment, CEOs
need to consult widely, build strong alliances and create an ethical
infrastructure in their organisations. Knowing when different is
different and when it is simply wrong, and why even isolated cases
of bullying or bad leadership can break an organisation, become key
features of a CEO’s moral compass.
Think of the world’s most successful businesses – Atlassian, Google
or Microsoft, for example. They are knowledge and thus people-
centred organisations. A nd their HR professionals play a crucial role
in providing an ethical infrastructure and nurturing a people culture
to create virtuous places of work. As such, they manage the interface
of organisational wellbeing and responsibility and must support and
nurture responsible leadership at all levels.
Second, to do what is right, not just in a legal but in a moral sense,
one has to identify the ethical challenge, the stakeholders involved,
weigh the options, and make the right call. These qualities don’t come
naturally and are rarely taught at university, so they must be embedded
in people and leadership development. HR’s role is to foster this ethical
Last, but certainly not least, ethically positive decisions cannot be
made in isolation. HR should become an ethical sounding board for
CEOs – a challenging but exciting role in a changing world. •••
23/11/17 4:40 pm
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