Colborn's Corner: Business ethics – an HR issue?

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Quentin Colborn

Quentin Colborn addresses the thorny issue of ethics in business and asks whether HR departments avoid having to face up to ethical dilemmas because it is just too risky to tackle.

The recent press comment about BAE Systems, relating to the acquisition of a contract to supply aircraft to Saudi Arabia, has thrown up the issue of business ethics again.

In the case in question, the suggestion was that the company had paid bribes in return for business. The resultant serious fraud office enquiry was halted on the grounds of national security and now BAE Systems have had a separate report into addressing ethical issues within the business.

Alasdair Campbell once famously stated on behalf of Tony Blair, "we don't do God", as a way of not addressing a topic that was seen as being politically fraught. In a similar vein, how many HR staff shy away from addressing the issue of ethics on the grounds that it is simply too dangerous to tackle?

The question of ethics covers many areas. At one extreme there are examples such as bribery and corruption, which not only are illegal but also contravene organisations' own rules.

Right or wrong?

At the other end of the scale are issues such as not following the disciplinary procedure when disciplining staff. Is the latter a question of ethics? What, in any event, are ethics? One definition I have come across states: "The process of determining right and wrong conduct". This begs the question as to what is right and wrong. Sounds simple, but in whose eyes is something right or wrong?

"At one extreme there are examples such as bribery and corruption, which not only are illegal but also contravene organisations' own rules."

Is making UK staff redundant and moving work offshore where labour is cheaper right or wrong? If you are an affected employee, doubtless you will feel it is wrong. However if you are a major shareholder in the business and you benefit from increased dividends you may take a different view (remembering of course that virtually everyone within a pension scheme is an indirect shareholder).

What are the ethics of a manager dismissing someone during their probationary period, safe in the knowledge that unfair dismissal provisions don't apply, and ignoring the requirements of the disciplinary procedure? Is this right or wrong conduct? Again it depends where you are coming from. The manager has a job to do and the employee has their contractual rights.

So what do we do when faced with ethical dilemmas? Should we have a voice if we see work outsourced overseas where we believe the health and safety rules are not as rigorous as our own? What do we do when we see a line manager treating someone unfairly?

If we think these questions are difficult, what about issues concerning the CEO of the organisation? How do we deal with the ethical issues of the CEO being a bully? How many people are prepared to confront issues such as this and put their own neck on the line?

Bringing the debate back to BAE Systems, it is alleged that bribes were paid to gain contracts for the company – many of which will have had employment implications within the UK. So what price has ethics? How many would whistleblow if they knew 10,000 jobs were dependant on a particular contract?

Difficult questions, I grant you. Unfortunately there are no easy answers – nobody ever said that business was easy.

What ethical issues do you face within your business? How much should HR be the conscience of the organisation? If so, what should or does this mean in practice? Let us hear your experiences of ethical issues.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]. For further information, please visit: www.qcpeople.co.uk.

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