The advertisers who withdrew their support from the News of The World and helped seal its demise were not being noble, altruistic or demonstrating integrity. They were keenly aware their own brand could be contaminated by being associated with what was clearly becoming a toxic organisation.
An important role of an HR service is to tweak an organisation’s conscience and if necessary draw attention to issues of integrity. How many HR practitioners are now wondering whether they should be advising their companies to have nothing to do with News International as a whole, not just its now defunct tabloid?
There are probably plenty of talented, decent and honest employees at NI. But we also know it is not infected with just a couple of “bad apples”. Something has gone terribly wrong with the organisation’s culture. Whether it is “wilful blindness” at the top, or deliberate malpractice lower down, the wider issue is “should you do business with such people?”
This question is surely in the minds of many HR practitioners, or at least should be. What should they advise their bosses? Should they even raise the issue in the first place?
After all, there are plenty of major organisations whose practices are clearly open to criticism, whether it is harming the environment or treating employees with lack of respect.
What about pharmaceutical companies that test their products on animals? Do you refuse to do business with them? Or the firm that encourages the use of Botox for breast enlargement purely for beauty purposes—is that beyond the pale?
Do you shy away from business with a restaurant chain that is criticised for treating its kitchen staff badly? Which banks will you refuse to do business with in the light of the wrong doings of recent times?
Once you start crossing off one’s that do not meet your own high ethical standards, depending on what they are, you could end up with a distressingly short list of potential customers.
Also, when ethical standards slip it is seldom due to a dramatic decision to do wrong. Instead ethical issues simply get downplayed or ignored. The Ford Pinto’s defective gas tank is a classic case of how this can occur. This unsafe part was shown to cause death or injury in a small number of cases. Analysis also showed settling law suits was cheaper than spending a few dollars on fixing the fault. So Ford took no remedial action. The executives responsible were not evil but lacked a good ethical compass. They relied on a “rational” business analysis, guided by the cost/benefit data. Later though Ford paid millions in damages, suffered expensive product recalls and tarnished its reputation.
Dubious corporate behaviour requires someone in a senior role to raise the alarm which is why the role of HR can be so critical. But to rely on the HR department to be the front runner is a cop out. Regardless of seniority, everyone in an organisation must be responsible for promoting ethics and doing the right thing. That is ethics must be part of the culture.
Whether you do business with News International probably comes down to how comfortable you feel about having them as one of your customers. If it leaves you uneasy then your integrity compass is telling you something important.
 The Ford Pinto Case and the Development of Auto Safety Regulations, 1993-1978, Matthew T. Lee*, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware
 Resources are limited and HR must raise its game, by Stefan Stern, FT Feb 17 2009