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Ethics Advice for HR Professionals

June 17, 2002
Related Topics: Ethics, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Unlike chief financial and legal officers, human resources executives do not have well established professional standards to help guide them. The Society of Human Resources Management last year published its version of professional standards. However, even those will not be universally recognized.

    Fortunately, some human resources educators -- including Dr. Dick Beatty, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Executive Education Center, and Elizabeth Scott, a professor at Penn State University -- are beginning to address the issue. Beatty and his colleagues are conducting a study of human resources professional ethics. After having collected input from more than 200 senior HR professionals, Beatty said he was very disappointed with what he described as a pervasive lack of business knowledge among HR professionals. “HR executives must know more than personnel basics; they must understand business,” Beatty said.

    As part of the soon-to-be published study, HR professionals were asked to distinguish between situations involving differences in approach from those that involved violations of professional standards or ethics from those that were clear legal violations. “There was little consistency in understanding the differences,” Beatty said. “It is important to know the difference. There are instances where the HR professional must be willing to put his or her job on the line. This is where you draw a line in the dirt and let the organization know it has gone too far.”

    Beatty said HR professionals must be respected for their ethics and business knowledge as much as for their human resources domain expertise if they are going to be taken seriously. “HR executives must be able to make their case in terms of impact on the workforce, customers, or investors. Just look at the ethical problems at Enron and the impact on investors,” Beatty said. “HR professionals should have sound business and legal knowledge. They must also know the ultimate customer of their work. It’s not their boss. It is the customer and investor communities.”

    Dr. Scott teaches an advanced course in human resources ethics at Penn State. Scott requires her students to create their personal code of ethics and apply it to specific situations. “Each situation requires a judgment call. There is a point at which an HR professional must be willing and able to walk away from their job.” Scott said.

    Dr. Scott said she provides several pieces of advice to her students and to HR professionals in general:

  1. “Know what you believe. Clearly think through what is legally and morally right and wrong. Understand why you believe what you believe.”

  2. “Develop your ability to influence. Be prepared to offer creative solutions to difficult situations.”

  3. “It is very important to not get in over your head. You have to be able to walk away if your ethical standards are jeopardized.”

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