HR central to fostering ethical workplaces

by Stephanie Zillman11 Apr 2012

The ethical tone of a workplace is set at the most senior level of an organisation and expert commentators warn that HR has a crucial role to play.

In light of the newspaper phone-hacking scandal whereby dishonest staff nearly brought down one of the world’s largest corporate empires, creating an honest and ethical workplace is now at the forefront of corporate agendas worldwide.

Dr Hilary Armstrong, a professional associate of the not-for-profit St James Ethics Centre, said that having continual robust conversations about ethics and policies is the key to an open and honest workplace. She added that while ensuring workplaces operate honestly is certainly no easy task, there is too much at stake to turn a blind eye.

Having good policies in place is not worth much if they are not continually revisited and modelled by senior leadership, and having an ethics code in place is meaningless if senior leaders do not ‘walk the talk’. It is also critical for HR managers and senior leaders to foster an environment where people feel comfortable to speak out and say what they need to say. “I think HR plays the role of being in a middle position. There has to be good transactions with senior management, but they are also about looking after the people at the organisation,” said Armstrong.

HR is in the position to organise regular activities that encourage open communication and transparency and, importantly, foster a culture where people hold each other to account.

The following management tips from the Institute of Executive Coaching may be useful for HR professionals in order to avoid scandal and potential law suits:

  • HR must be allowed to institute ethics policies by the executive team; HR must be given the power and support to push accountability.
  • Programs should be instituted which raise awareness of what is an expected level of behaviour.
  • Anonymous feedback forms should be readily disseminated.
  • Senior management must ensure that it is an explicit part of HR’s mandate to provide clear expectations and company policy to staff.
  • When the executive focus is on accountability, it will be in everyone’s consciousness.

For more information about ethics in the workplace, visit the St James Ethics Centre website. It is a fully independent, not-for-profit organisation which provides a non-judgemental forum for the promotion and exploration of ethics.


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  • by Bernie Althofer 12/04/2012 10:58:47 AM

    It seems that in this day and age, great expectations (and demands) ar being put onto HR managers.

    Unfortunately, it also seems that as other areas within organisations find themselves steeped with additional requirements, line managers and supervisors may find it 'convenient' to abbrogate their responsibilities and accountabilities.

    Playing the devil's advocate, HR might not be in a position where they can exert any real power or influence over the day to day operations of organisations. HR might well play a key support role with specialist advice on issues such as ethics. However, in some organisations, particularly the public sector, entire branches are formed and devoted to promoting ethical conduct and responding to breaches of such conduct.

    As mentioned in this story, it seems pointless having various Codes of Conduct etc outlining ethical requirements, if either the leaders do not follow them consistently, or if the workers perceive there is no real value in the Codes because 'no-one really knows what they mean'.

    I had a discussion recently about workshops being conducted in relation to ethics. I thought that it was important that there be some explanation as to what was meant by ethics. The response was "Everyone knows what is meant by ethics". I followed this up with a discussion with a Gen Y worker who gave me their ideas about ethics. There was a substantial variance in understandings.

    By all means, develop Codes of Conduct, but ensure that they are written in a language that everyone can understand. Don't just make the ethics statement something to hang on the wall and don't lock the Code of Conduct away in the belief that 'only managers need to know about it'.

    It is also important to address the workplace culture particularly the gap that can exist between what is documented and the way things are really done. For example, extolling the virtues of ethical conduct seems pointless when trainers have an 'off the record' discussion to say 'you can ignore that, it is not what happens in the workplace' and then have the trainer explain where to pick up the discounts. In real terms, it is critically important to ensure that those being confronted with the need to make ethical decisions and those involved in day to day managerial or supervisory roles are at the fore front of maintaining responsibility and accountability.

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