Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | February 27, 2010

Ethics: An HR Role and Responsibility

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR

Ethics provide a set of principles that individuals and groups use to determine what is right or wrong in behaviors, actions and decisions. An ethical perspective is multi-dimensional. It takes into consideration fairness, justice, truthfulness, social responsibility and other factors. Ethics can and do go beyond the law. An employer, for example, may have the legal right to terminate an employee at will. The manner and method of a particular termination may however, violate the ethical standards and expectations of a workgroup.

The Society of Human Resources Management has a code of ethics. It offers guidance in the areas of professional responsibility, professional development, ethical leadership, fairness and justice, conflicts of interest, and use of information. Among other things, it establishes an expectation that an HR professional:

•    Add value by contributing to the ethical success of their organization,
•    Practice HR at high level of professional competence,
•    Serve as a role model for others to follow in ethical matters,
•    Encourage fairness and justice,
•    Protect the legitimate business interests of stakeholders, and,
•    Honor the rights of individuals with regard to the use of information.

The SHRM Code of Ethics is a document. It is a call to action. It provides guidance. It does not assure or create ethical behaviors among HR Professionals. It does say that a true HR Professional is more than tangentially aware of the concept of ethics.

An HR Professional ventures into the ethics arena in many ways. You may develop a training session for the Board of Directors or workplace leaders. You might mediate a discussion about whether an employee with a complaint is a malcontent or a whistle blower. You could be involved in a task force assigned to develop guidelines for doing business in another country.

Human Resources Management is often about laws and regulations. It is also about ethics. Long before a legal violation, a series of events occur. In a well-publicized sexual harassment case, a hiring manager in a restaurant asked applicants to change into a server’s uniform. A webcam was in the dressing room so that the manager could watch applicants change their clothes. The request to try on the uniform may violate the law. Certainly, filming an applicant while he or she changes clothes violates privacy, sexual harassment and other laws.

Before the first applicant went to the dressing room, ethical issues were at play. Remember, ethics is about what individuals and organizations deem to be appropriate. It is difficult to think that most individuals or organizations, would find the decision to ask a candidate to change clothes as part of an interview, much less being viewed on a webcam, right or proper behavior for a hiring manager or employer. Each planning decision in the interview process raised important ethical issues. Implementing the decisions created significant legal violations.

An ethical decision considers six important factors. Individuals and organizations often consider the factors after an action. The challenge for an HR Professional is to build them into the decision process. The six factors include:

1. Facts
An ethical decision starts with a careful analysis of the facts. It sets aside emotion and investment. It collects information about dates, times, numbers and other objective information. It uses that information to develop a clear picture of the issues involved in the decision.

Example:  A manager wants to hire his or her daughter for a summer job
Facts:  Manager and candidate are related

Policy is silent on hiring relatives
Organization has never hired summer help
Three employees have complained that the manager “bends” rules

2. Ethical Issues
Each situation is unique. It requires a careful analysis to determine the ethical issues that are involved. Those issues may range from fairness to honesty. They may include social or environmental responsibility. A law, regulation, or policy may be involved. A past practice, decision, or commitment might play a role.

Example:  Management decides but has not announced a RIF.
Issues:  HR knows about a planned RIF, but is not able to discuss it.
Employee tells HR she is about to sign papers for a new house.
Employee will likely be involved in the RIF.
Employee is about to make a long-term legal commitment.
Employer value: “Employees are our most important asset.”

3. Stakeholders
Decisions affect people. They go far beyond the profit and loss statement. They involve employees, Board Members, customers, communities, and others. An ethical decision takes pause to consider who is affected and how they will be affected.

Example:  Truck manufacturer knows gas tanks explode upon impact
Stakeholders:  Buyers, passengers, relatives of crash victims, shareholders, etc.

4. Consequences
An ethical decision considers the potential cost of an action. Cost is relative. It can be financial or personal. It can be immediate or long term. An individual or an organization can suffer the consequences of an unethical decision.

Example:  Two managers engaging in an affair
Consequences:  Lost credibility for each manager
Possible conflict of interest in decision-making
Potential job loss each manager
Possible embarrassment for the organization

5. Obligations
A decision is not made in a vacuum. The parties involved in the decision have a history with each other. They have developed real or perceived obligations between each other. They expect each other to live up to those obligations which must be taken into consideration when a decision is made.

Example:  HR Director terminated for insisting on overtime compliance
Obligations:  Executive promised legal compliance when the Director was hired
Policy provides for daily and weekly overtime
State and federal laws require overtime payments

6. Values
An ethical decision is one that allows the decision-maker to sleep well. It does not require complex rationalization. People sometimes ask, “How will it read in the newspaper?” The point is that an ethical decision is consistent with both personal and organizational values. It is not just the value system of an individual or a department in an organization. It is the generally accepted value system within society, the organization or similarly situated individuals.

Example:  Using a cell phone while driving on company business
Values:  Safety for self and others
Complying with the law and corporate policy
Commitments to communicate with others

Each of these factors presents a complex series of variables. They require a careful and thoughtful analysis often in a dynamic, fast moving business environment. The challenge for an HR Professional is to bring ethics to life within an organization. An effective HR professional builds these six ethical factors into each people management decision.

Ethics is a full-time responsibility. As an HR professional, you must invest time to learn more about the principles of ethics. The SHRM Code of Ethics is a good place to start. Try typing “Human Resources and Ethics” into your browser or favorite on-line bookstore. You will find a wealth of information, resources, and ideas to strengthen your knowledge in this important HR skill.                                     Copyright 2010 PIHRA

Mike Deblieux, SPHR, is a Human Resources Consultant. He provides onsite-coaching support for supervisors and managers. He presents seminars on people management topics. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Mike can be reached at



  1. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your insights on the HR role as it pertains to ethics. Your specific examples are very helpful. HR is the backbone to any company and it takes the responsibilit to ensure the company is ethical in their pratices and procedures.


  2. Human resource explain correctly the process of recruitment and selection

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