For Ethical Leadership, Workers Depend on HR

Human Resources classroom with students and faculty

One chilling, widely reported detail from the story of Matt Lauer, the former star and co-host of NBC’s “Today Show,” is the button he kept under his desk to remotely close his office door. Lauer was fired amid allegations that he sexually harassed young female employees, but NBC maintained that there was no culture of harassment.

Less sensational, but perhaps more significant, is the network’s Human Resources department, which was located in the middle of its office complex—and had glass walls. That meant employees wanting to report problems would have had a hard time doing so without being seen. 

As the Lauer case and others show, human resources can be a tough, ethically demanding job, says George Ho, a consultant in Deloitte’s Federal Human Capital practice and an instructor for the Georgetown University Master's in Human Resources Management program. According to Ho, HR professionals are entrusted to represent the interests of three groups: the company, its employees, and a variety of stakeholders, from suppliers and consumers to society at large. And in NBC’s case, they failed.

“HR practitioners need to have the courage to ask the difficult questions,” Ho said. “It’s always going to be tough to ask these types of questions.”

Certainly, HR doesn’t bear all the responsibility for addressing employee misbehavior or changing a toxic work culture. Ethical leadership starts at the top. But HR experts say that if such leadership is lacking, HR must take the difficult step of confronting upper management.

Signs of Improvement

So are we approaching the nadir of business ethics? Surprisingly, no, according to the National Business Ethics Survey, published by the Ethics Resource Center. The survey states that the percentage of workers who observed misconduct on the job fell to an all-time low of 41 percent, compared with 45 percent in 2011 and a record high 55 percent in 2007.

“The dip in misconduct may reflect workers’ tendency to take fewer risks when economic prospects seem weak or uncertain, given the relatively soft recovery since 2008,” the report said. “But it is also possible—and we believe probable—that business’ continuing and growing commitment to strong ethics and compliance programs is bearing fruit and that ethical performance is becoming the new norm in many workplaces.”

But the data is not all positive. The report found that “a relatively high percentage of misconduct is committed by managers,” and that “nearly a quarter (24 percent) of observed misdeeds involved senior managers.”

Practicing in the Classroom

How can HR professionals and those planning to enter the field prepare for these kinds of ethical challenges? One way is to grapple with these issues in an educational setting.

In a recent course in workplace ethics at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies, teams of HR graduate students researched specific business practices and determined whether or not they were ethical. Earlier in the semester, they studied traditional ethics, from ancient times to the present, as well as applied ethics in schools, businesses, and other venues.

One team looked at the ethical issues surrounding “blind” employment applications, which hide references that could reveal an applicant’s race, gender, or ethnicity. The advantage of such a system is that it tends to correct for unconscious bias. On the negative side, the practice could redact information that might help minority candidates who had overcome prejudice or economic difficulties. Using ethical theory and their own analysis of benefits and drawbacks, the students concluded that overall, the practice is ethical.

“It’s not just who you’re dealing with in front of you,” student Kim Coleman said after class. “You have to think about the stakeholders and how it will affect everyone.

Pausing to Think

Considering whether it’s ethical to use blind employment applications sounds a lot more nuanced than deciding whether to report a sexually abusive manager or a department head who orders employees to break the law. But by digging deep into these more conventional questions, students develop a mindset that that will help them later, under real-world pressure, when the issue might not be whether a practice or behavior is ethical, but whether it’s ethical to know about it and look the other way.

“The important thing is to stop—think about it,” said the class’s instructor, Assistant Dean Joshua Meredith, JD, referring ethical issues in general. “Take in all the facts, and come to a conclusion.”

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