HR & Ethics — Marriage or Mismatch?

Someone asked me recently if (a) the ethics in human resources are becoming suspect, and (b) if ethics can really be taught to anyone.

My first reaction, of course, was to nearly scoff at the “ethics” question, thinking that frequently, our profession may even OVER-think the ethics component in an otherwise common-sense situation.

Then, I gave it some more thought…

Typically, when people start in HR, they view their roles as more employee-centric; part ombudsman, part “good cop” manager-surrogate. They enjoy doing things that enhance “morale,” “feel-good,” and create perceived contentment within the organization, regardless of these things’ real value to their firm.

Then, we expect them to grow into “business partners.” Never mind the ludicrous nature of that moniker, the fact is they are ill-prepared. Their stereotypical nature of nurturing, consensus, and conflict-avoidance is clearly at odds with the profession’s emphasis on strategic contributions.

In trying to meld the two, I do believe ethics are sometimes abrogated, or at least marginalized by HR professionals. Believing they know what managers “want,” they may be too eager to deliver that, versus spending the time, angst, and conflict to drill down to actual “needs.” In not trying to be a “typical HR person,” they may skirt those very things that allowed them to perform ethically.

A common “compliment” these days to an HR professional is to tell them that they don’t ACT like one… this implication is that they are less intrusive, less employee-centric, and less prone to slow things down for appropriate process management (e.g. “compliance”).

Just my thoughts.

Lastly, of course ethics can be taught. Ethics is a topic, a subject matter. It can be taught to anyone with the desire and ability to learn. Ethical BEHAVIOR, however, is something different. Just like you can teach law to criminals, you can teach ethics to the unethical. Just don’t expect behavior changes.

Remember, you can’t train for integrity and work ethic, and you can’t fix stupid.

But that’s another post…


Kevin Berchelmann

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