HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

HR Ethics
Sturdy ethics contribute to the practical success of your organization, as well as its moral grounding. Let's consider ethics on three levels: your organization's actions; your professional responsibilities; and your employees' behaviors.

What Are HR Ethics?

Ethics are the moral principles that guide our actions. On an organizational level, ethics are involved in areas like data privacy, compensation equity, and environmental concerns. As an HR professional, you make ethical decisions every day in truth-telling, hiring, compliance issues, confidentiality, and more. Your employees' ethics or lack thereof can show up in their work ethic, the way they treat one another, misuse of company time, theft, harassment, and other policy violations. HR is responsible for leading the ethical values of the organization, as well as contributing human capital and financial value, and is expected to adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct. On the organizational level, HR is responsible to speak truth to power in issues of fairness, legal compliance, and transparency, and in being a champion of the company's stated mission and values. As a professional, we are all mandated to continually educate ourselves and develop more awareness of ethical issues. And for employees, HR should provide training and educational opportunities to upskill the ethical values. The ethics of your company, yourself, and your employees directly impact its reputation and the bottom line.

The Importance of Ethics in HR

HR has the responsibility to ensure the highest levels of your organization's ethical code of conduct. HR is both the gatekeeper of ethics within the organization and its ethics evangelist. Here are a few points that illustrate the important role HR plays in organizational and individual ethics.
  • Competency. Even though it may seem like ethical conduct is something that everyone should know and thus doesn’t need to be discussed, it does. The people in your organization will benefit and increase in competency through training on ethical conduct.
  • Awareness. Ethics should be applied to all areas of the business and interpersonal interactions. Ethical conduct extends beyond business decisions; it goes to the very DNA of how people think and behave, which includes interpersonal interactions.
  • Accountability. As an HR professional, you have the responsibility to act with the highest standards of ethical conduct and the responsibility to hold everyone in your organization accountable to act at those same standards.

Common Ethical Issues That HR Faces

Ethical concerns range from common issues that occur every day to very sensitive ethical dilemmas.

Harassment and Discrimination

How you handle sensitive situations relating to harassment and discrimination is one common ethical area for HR. There are two types of discrimination in the workplace that relate to ethical conduct.
  • Disparate impact commonly refers to unintentional discriminatory practices. This type of discrimination can happen in hiring practices in subtle ways; for example, adding educational requirements for a role where the educational requirement does not directly relate to the primary job functions. Even though at face value it may feel like requiring a bachelor’s degree or similar type of educational requirement for a role would yield better-qualified applicants, it is possible that requirement may inadvertently impact people of color or other protected classes.
  • Disparate treatment is intentionally discriminating against an employee. Job requirements that state something like, “Looking for someone young and energetic” are disparate treatment (and illegal). That might not sound discriminatory, but age is actually a federally protected status. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on age over 40 years.

Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest happens when an individual's personal interest in a situation could compromise their judgment and decisions in the workplace. Here are a few examples of conflicts of interest.
  • Nepotism is a situation where a family relationship takes precedence in a business decision—often when a family member gets preferential treatment in a hiring decision. This could happen when hiring an unqualified family member for a position where other qualified candidates are available.
  • Quid pro quo is a situation where a favor is given in return for something else. A quid pro quo situation is unethical because it is based on personal interest.
  • Conflicts of interest occur when employees benefit personally from actions they take at work. Here are a few examples of outside activities that can cause conflicts of interest.
    • An employee owns a catering business outside of work and leverages their position within the organization to land catering contracts at work.
    • An employee is on the board of directors for another organization and that company wants to do business with your organization.

Confidentiality and Data Privacy

HR professionals work with private confidential data and have both a legal and ethical requirement to handle that data with sensitivity. You are expected to keep sensitive and private data secure and safe as well as handle it with discretion. This may also apply to your organization's and employees' ethical responsibility to protect customer or client data. Here are a few types of confidential data that require the highest standards of ethical conduct.

Fair Labor Practices

Fair labor practices refer to sets of principles that promote a fair and equitable workplace for all employees. Fair labor practices seek to promote and rectify inequalities within the workplace. In addition, fair labor practices ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect, and encourage every organization to create an environment of psychological safety for employees. As a practitioner of ethical conduct within your organization, you need to be aware of the labor standards required by law, as well as the ethical practices that should be adhered to even if they are not legally required. For example, federal and state laws allocate a minimum wage that must be paid to employees; minimum wage is an example of ethical or fair labor practices. Many organizations and positions go beyond paying the minimum wage, and many companies feel they should provide a living wage for their people instead of just a minimum wage.

Health and Safety

For the most part, our places of work are safe and healthy. However, this does not happen by accident (pardon the pun). Whether your employees work in a highly hazardous work environment or remotely from home, you have the ethical responsibility to plan for and ensure a safe and healthy working environment. Health and safety can be defined in many different ways. Here are a few different areas that you will want to think about as you create health and safety best practices at your organization. Physical safety. This could look like complying with OSHA regulations like providing hearing protection in loud workplaces, requiring hard hats in construction areas, or requiring safety goggles in production plants. Depending on the nature of your work, this may be a major or minor part of your health and safety plans. The way we view health and safety changed drastically in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many organizations flipped overnight from in-office environments to work-from-home remote-style environments. Those changes were managed, influenced, and to some degree orchestrated thanks to the ethical conduct of HR professionals. Safety training for catastrophic events, including floods, tornados, fires, and even active shooter scenarios, is an ethical requirement. These events don’t happen often, but if and when they do, they can be devastating. HR has a unique ethical opportunity to provide plans and training for such events. These events may never occur, and this is why it is an ethics discussion. An additional area of health and safety to consider is the psychological safety of your employees. Your employees may be physically safe at work, but that does not necessarily mean that they feel safe. Fostering an environment of psychological safety creates a workplace where people feel comfortable being authentic versions of themselves, expressing their thoughts and ideas, and admitting mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retaliation. As an HR professional, you have the opportunity to create a physically safe and healthy work environment as well as a psychologically safe one.

How HR Can Lead the Way to a More Ethical Workplace

In addition to maintaining the highest level of personal ethical conduct, HR professionals also have a responsibility to lead the way for more ethical conduct for their employees.

Step 1: Establish Ethical Standards

The first step to take is to define the shared ethical standards that the people in your organization will commit to live and work by. It will be very difficult to create an ethical place of work without a shared definition of what ethical standards you hold. When you establish the standard of ethics in your organization, through transparency you create a foundation and a shared commonality of what ethics can be expected of your employees. This can be a company-wide collaboration and should be reflected in the mission statement, values and goals.

Step 2: Start With Leadership

It’s often said that culture starts at the top. The same can be said for an ethical workplace. If you want to create an ethical workplace, start by working with your leaders. The conduct of your leaders has a direct ripple effect on all of the people that report to them; other leaders and cross-functional partners they interact with; and the way your employees interact with customers and each other. An added benefit of starting with your leaders will be the ongoing and continuing support you receive in maintaining the ethical conduct of your employees. Just like any area of human behavior, ethical conduct cannot be perfected with one training. Behavior changes over time, and it requires time and attention. As one HR professional, you cannot actively be there to individually encourage and foster ethical behavior for all of the employees in your organization at all times, but collectively, your leaders can.

Step 3: Training

Ethical conduct is an area of workplace culture and performance that people may assume they already know, and yet every year there are countless instances of workplace misconduct, miscommunication, hostile work environments, dishonest behavior, and more. In addition to overt unethical behavior, people also bring unique life experiences and cultural backgrounds to the workplace that may translate into unique and potentially clashing views of ethical behavior. Sometimes people think they know what workplace ethical conduct is, but they may not understand the standards your organization expects or have the empathy to accept other peoples' interpretations. HR has the opportunity to provide training for practical ethical conduct that can help your employees change their conduct and their tolerance for the better. Providing training on ethical behavior in the workplace creates a shared common language and frame of reference for the type of conduct and behavior that is expected. It is difficult to manage ethical conduct expectations if they have not been communicated clearly and consistently throughout the organization. As you continue to implement training across your organization, you can begin to communicate shared ethical values that your people understand, agree on, and adhere to. Here are a few types of ethics based training that you may considering implementing within your organization:

Step 4: Provide Resources

As an HR professional, you can provide the resources necessary for creating an ethical workplace. Assume that those in your organization want to act ethically, but sometimes need additional resources to help facilitate, foster, and develop those behaviors. When you provide resources to your employees to act in an ethical fashion, you can ingrain ethics into your cultural DNA. Here are some examples of resources you can provide.
  • Employee resource groups are voluntary employee-led groups that facilitate organic, candid conversation among employees. Employee resource groups usually align to a specific topic or group in a way that is designed to help people feel comfortable to engage in authentic conversation. ERGs provide support, encouragement, and training to under-represented groups. ERGs in your organization will help you share and practice your company’s ethical values across diverse groups of people. Here are a few examples of ERGs that can help you evangelize ethics.
    • Ethics ERG. To foster a culture of ethics in your organization, one of the easiest and most straightforward places to start would be creating an ethics ERG. An ethics ERG will empower your employees to get involved in the conversation and take personal ownership in cultivating ethical behavior.
    • Diversity and inclusion ERGs can educate employees about diverse groups that exist within your organization and promote the celebration of diversity, and support those who feel in the minority. Celebrating diversity can be a great tool in reducing unethical attitudes that exist cross-culturally and empower those who are part of minority groups in your organization.
    • Sustainability ERGs. Our places of work have effects both known and unknown on the communities they exist in. In addition to those impacts, your organization has the potential to have a greater impact for good within your community. Sustainability ERGs embrace action and intentionality that sustain, save, and replenish the resources of our planet.
    • Community action ERGs look for ways to positively impact the people in the community of your organization.
    • Women’s ERGs promote equity of women within your organization. Providing education and support to women in your organization can go a long way toward creating an inclusive workplace.
  • Open door policies. An open door policy lets employees know that leaders are open to their feedback, concerns, and issues. Open door policies foster open communication, and open communication encourages ethical behavior. Also, not every employee feels comfortable talking openly to their direct manager and may not be willing to discuss a situation where ethics are involved, or may need to share concerns about that manager. Open door policies facilitate more communication with whomever the employee is most comfortable with.

Step 5: Create Accountability

Accountability means taking responsibility for one's actions in the workplace. HR takes ownership of ethical conduct accountability in two ways.
  • Ethics reviews. Conduct regular ethics audits to ensure that ethical standards are being adhered to within your organization. This will help employees maintain ethical conduct as well as identify areas where your organization may be at risk.
  • One way to hold employees accountable for ethical behavior is by providing disciplinary action to those who do not adhere to the standards of ethics within your organization. When you hold employees accountable, it sends a message throughout your organization that you value ethical conduct and take compliance seriously.
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Tyler Fisher, PHR

Tyler Fisher, PHR

Tyler empowers Talent Acquisition professionals, HR business leaders, and key stake holders to develop and execute talent management strategies. He is igniting the talent acquisition process through: team building, accurate time to fill forecasting, driving creative talent sourcing, and fine-tuning recruiting team effectiveness.
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