When embedding ethical values into organisational culture, the roles of a company’s Ethics and HR functions frequently overlap. It is important therefore that they work together effectively.

Research suggests that the Ethics and HR functions recognise the importance of working effectively together. In a Conference Board survey of ethics and compliance and human resource professionals from 214 global companies, 77% of respondents said they "would like to see a more collaborative approach between the two functions than their company is currently taking.”

Overcoming challenges

Despite the potential and necessity for areas of collaboration between the Ethics function and HR it is not uncommon for tensions and perceived lack of co-operation to exist between the two departments.

In a 2008 survey of global companies by Ethics Resource Center (ERC) and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 30% of respondents cited different approaches to problem analysis as the key obstacle towards successful collaboration between the two functions. 18% cited potentially disruptive areas such as lack of mutual professional respect and a ‘sizeable number of HR professionals feel that they are not truly part of the ethics infrastructure in their organisations, yet they are often called upon to remedy or assist with the situations caused by ethics violations’.

Paula Desio (ERC) puts problems down to communication failure and a perception of competition:

"These two groups are sharing many of the same responsibilities and there’s an overlap that should be harmonised. They certainly shouldn’t be competing. It should be more a question of emphasis and less a matter of a turf battle between the two groups”.

Despite such possible challenges, many companies have good relations between the Ethics team and HR which helps them to embed a values-led culture across the organisation. One company told us that they recruit people with HR backgrounds as members of the Ethics function as there is greater understanding of each other's role. This can help facilitate strong personal working relationships which they view as key to successful working between the two teams.

An FMCG company highlighted to us the importance of both departments communicating openly so that strategies can be aligned and they are working towards common goals. This has more impact than isolated approaches. How feasible this is for companies can be dependent on how well ethics is integrated into existing systems and processes. For example, the FMCG company emphasise "it is key that ethics... is embedded in our existing practices, and not just a ‘bolt on’, or additional task. This makes it easier to implement and easier for employees to engage with and understand that it is an integral part of the way we do business, and not an optional extra". This means the whole company, HR and the Ethics function included, are working to the same agenda.

How HR and Ethics can work together

HR is responsible for key systems and processes which can underpin effective delivery of messages the organisation wishes to convey about ethics. Through HR, ethics can be given credibility and aligned with how businesses run. With their expertise in change management and internal communications, and by working in partnership with those responsible for ethical performance within their organisation, HR can help to integrate ethics into processes such as the employer brand, recruitment, induction, appraisal, retention, motivation, reward, diversity, coaching and training.

HR also has an important role to play in monitoring how ethical values are embedded. Staff surveys, appraisals and exit interviews can all provide valuable information on whether the company’s ethical values are embedded, as well as providing ways to evaluate how the ethics programme is working and whether the company is living up to its values in practices.

Developing a rewards system for ethical behaviour, such as remuneration, promotion or ethics ‘awards’, are other ways of encouraging and reinforcing the expected ethical behaviour of employees. HR and the Ethics function can work together to develop an employee incentives system for their organisation to reward employees who demonstrate ethical behaviours.

HR professionals have a central role in supporting a workplace culture where ‘doing the right thing’ is encouraged. Human Resources Departments are the main point of contact for all staff within an organisation and as such have unique access to staff throughout their career, from induction training to exit interviews. A company-wide ethical culture, where ‘doing the right thing’ is just part of the way business is done, will not be achieved unless HR and Ethics professionals make their relationship work.

Polly Foley is senior researcher at the Institute of Business Ethics. The IBE’s latest Briefing The Collaboration between Ethics and HR is available as a free download from www.ibe.org.uk

Ethics  human resources 

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