Ethics is not just about keeping up appearances

It can never be easy for heads of HR who, with a brief from bosses to cut costs, have to decide who in their team to make redundant.

Given the news stories in this issue on the dozens of HR people likely to lose their jobs (at Norwich Union and Thames Water, for example), in today’s climate, this uncomfortable situation just goes with the HR territory. A situation made much worse, of course, when it involves people who are your friends, not just your colleagues. This can prompt a terrible tug of war between your corporate and legal responsibilities and your personal sense of duty. Do you tip colleagues off privately beforehand, in a bid to soften the blow, or do you wait until it’s time for the official announcement?

The ability to keep secrets should be one of HR’s strengths, but having to keep such big news under wraps must conflict with the pressure on organisations to create an open-door culture and to prioritise internal communications, particularly in times of huge organisational change.

Doing the right thing when faced with a difficult workplace situation is a topic we examine in our lead feature this week. We argue that corporate ethics are not just a ‘nice to have’, but a fundamental way of doing business. And we’re not just talking about a corporate social responsibility initiative that grabs lots of headlines but does little to convince sceptics that the organisation truly means it.

The onus is on leaders to instil an ethical culture in their organisations, and on HR to ensure that an ethical thread is woven through every policy and procedure, and in the way employees deal with peers, bosses, customers and suppliers. If this is authentic – and people can usually tell if it’s not – this can nurture the employer brand and bring commercial benefits to the business.

Little comfort, perhaps, for those being made redundant, but at least an ethical approach allows them to leave with dignity.

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