Last Updated 15 Apr 2020

The Ethics of Human Resources

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Ethics in business may involved everything including hiring decisions, pricing decisions, strategic decisions, and so on. The need for a process for making ethical decisions in business is great. There are a large number of instances where ethical decisions are necessary in business operations, and corporations find that they can get themselves into trouble even when they are trying to be ethical if they do not have a strong and effective procedural structure to guide employees in making such decisions.

The Human Resources department must operate with ethical standards that are clear and that address the kinds of issues this department will face. The HR professional handles more than hiring and firing of employees, also being responsible in some degree for orientation, training, union negotiations, decisions regarding compensation, special programs for addressing workplace problems, and so on. All of these tasks must be infused with an ethical structure that helps HR professionals make good decisions.

Hallier and Leopold (1996) note the nature of defining the problem of characterizing the personnel function by pointing out that the terminology is "ambiguous, contradictory and controversial" (p. 46) and yet as a discipline on which a good deal is placed: At its most ambitious, however, HRM has been seen and promoted as a set of beliefs and practices which are radically different from those of traditional personnel management. Most significantly, the management of the workforce is seen as central, if not the key, to competitive advantage (Hallier & Leopold, 1996, p. 46).

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To a degree, the distinction made between personnel and HRM is only a matter of terminology, yet more respect is accorded HRM than the personnel function in the literature. Human Resource Managers will have to respond to a number of demographic changes in coming years, each requiring some special consideration, including older workers, minority groups, and single and childless couples. Managers will have some guidance in these areas from legislation passed to cope with the changes and to both protect workers and define the rights of business to make certain decisions.

The breadth of issues facing HR professionals is indicated by Lachnit (2002) when she writes, How does your company treat employees when they bring management bad news or unpopular opinions? Are your organization's core values real, or are they just pretty words to be inscribed on corporate trinkets (para. 5). There is no doubt that the relationship between the worker and the average company has been changing for some time, with less job security and more flexibility for the company.

This has created particular problems in the public eye, notably a perception that older workers are not being treated fairly (as one analyst notes, "Age discrimination is the most frequent type of discrimination complaint; it is not only unlawful, it is bad business" [Age discrimination in the workplace, 2005]) or that minorities may not be given sufficient opportunity if affirmative action programs are outlawed in the future.

Managers may have to develop more creative ways to achieve diversity and to incorporate demographic changes into their thinking, but they first have to recognize the scope of the problem and the need for creative solutions. Human resource development (HRD) has three important components--training, education, and development. When the three are properly coordinated, HRD has a positive effect on worker productivity and so on the productivity of the company. Training improves the performance of workers and so increases their motivation, and as they work harder and produce more, the company profits.

HRD is also dedicated to seeing to it that skills do not become obsolescent. Employees may have their skills upgraded through added training and education, and this benefits them in terms of promotion. Workplace diversity is another issue that will remain important. A recent survey among members of the International Association of Business Communicators found that diversity was one of the most critical challenges faced by these communicators (Geddie, 1999, pp. 27-30).

These professionals found that cultural and language diversity can pose significant barriers to effective communication, but there are other factors which can be equally daunting. In addition to cultural and language diversity, the American workplace is increasingly made up of individuals with varying degrees of technical competence as well as educational backgrounds. Mergers can bring together employees from different corporate cultures as well, and overcoming differences in corporate cultures can sometimes be as difficult as overcoming differences in national origin.

Translators can address the differences between languages and culture, but cannot help a company when it merges with another organization and needs to synthesize a new corporate culture. In these situations, the best approach is to develop a corporate communication strategy which should be in accordance with the company's overall strategic goals and objectives (Geddie, 1999, p. 38). Diversity training also needs to take into account the various levels of the organization. It is common, for example, for companies to provide diversity training at the low and mid? levels of an organization, but to ignore the executive level.

Despite the gains which have been made by minorities and women, the executive level in many companies remains largely white male, and there is sometimes the belief that diversity training and effective interpersonal communication training is not needed at these levels (Flynn, 1999, p. 52). Leadership is required throughout organizations, but it is necessary in the HR department as these changes are implemented in order to assure that the changeover is smooth, that needs are met, that laws and regulations are fulfilled, that workers are satisfied and motivated, and that the needs of both workers and employers are met to the degree possible.

The HR professional has a role in this process. The Human Resources professional has to understand human behavior and is also involved in shaping that behavior, and this is why Human Resources can be called a behavioral science. The HR professional has to be capable in several areas of human behavior, including communication and motivation Warnick (1993) discusses the importance of communication for the Human Resources professional, which he says is the single most difficult profession in the business world today.

In part, he says this because of the communication requirements placed on the professional. He states that employees expect the professional to take up their cause and resolve issues in their favor; line executives expect him or her to take care of "people problems" no matter what the cause; and top management expects him or her to keep the company out of legal problems and to maintain high employee morale.

The HR professional must advise management on a variety of issues but especially in areas that concern laws or guidelines involving employee rights. The need to keep the company out of legal problems begins with the HR professional's job of advising and counseling employees to ensure that they do not feel the need to appeal to any of the many government agencies that now exist to provide redress. In these two roles, however, there is a potential for disaster because they are conflicting roles.

The model for civil law in the U. S. is adversarial, and this is true in labor law as well. Warnick asks how it is possible for the HR professional to advise management and still maintain confidence in management's possible legal position while at the same time advising employees about what's in their best interest? The professional who gives too much weight to either side will lose the confidence of the other. The HR professional is a communication facilitator who is management's spokesperson and the employees' advocate.

He or she is expected to play a peacemaker role. Communication between management and employees is the responsibility of human resources. When management decides that a change is needed, Human Resources announces, explains, and justifies the change. Human resources also takes the concerns of employees and employee issues to management for consideration, review, and possible redress. Employees expect human resources to serve as their advocate and to plead their cause to management.

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