Who’s the conscience of your organisation? Where’s its moral compass? Does it have one? Does it need one? The VW scandal has resurrected stories of rotten apples, rogue teams. But who’s responsible for the cultures that foster, enable or obscure the existence of these rotten apples or rogue teams? These questions tend to divide opinion in the HR profession. Some argue that it’s HR’s role to develop and nurture healthy cultures and to alert leadership colleagues or decision makers to the health of the barrels holding the apples or the environments in which teams are going off-piste.

The collapse of corporate cultures, leaders trampling openly on organisations’ espoused values or shafting their customers for short term gain – are all of these a failure of culture and therefore of HR? Others claim that everyone owns the culture; it’s everyone’s accountability (and therefore troublingly, nobody’s); HR’s role is to deliver the business strategy within the system. Cultures are soft, business plans hard.

What’s underlying this difference of opinion? Is it the fear that hard-won reputations for commerciality and hard-won seats at board room tables are risked by too much talk of the soft stuff? Hard to decide where accountability lies if you’re not even comfortable with the language or frame for the question.

To move the discussion on, if cultures are the soft stuff, what are ethics? Softer still, positively fluffy, ethereal to the point of mistiness? It’s interesting to me that as a profession we seem uncomfortable talking about ethics. I’m often told “well, I’m commercial so I don’t do ethics.” (As the wonderful Veronica Hope-Hailey said to me recently, can you imagine a chartered accountant saying that?). Surely ethics and professionalism are intimate bed fellows? Contrast “we were doing what we were told” and “we did what was right.” I’d argue that the former is administrative, the latter professional. To do the right thing, to make good decisions, requires mastery of relevant knowledge, strength of character and a frame of reference for what’s right and what’s wrong. Ethics in other words. And all of these requirements summarise the fundamentals of professionalism.

So what scope is there for HR to develop a conversation about ethics, to create the language and the frame for doing the right thing and pushing colleagues to do likewise? Interestingly, our latest research shows that there’s no “HR / Business” divide here. Business leaders want to do the right thing just as much as HR practitioners do, but the same research also shows a worrying gap between ambition and practice. I want to do the right thing, make a good decision but there’s no enabling system. I compromise doing the right thing to do the thing that is expected of me, turning a blind eye to the rotting of the apple, the long term implications or invisible costs of a decision.

I think it’s part of our role as the professional body for HR and people development to champion this conversation. Professionalism in HR starts with knowing what we stand for — not what table we sit at — a set of principles that help us make good decisions, and advise colleagues and business leaders likewise. With those in place, we’ll have the credibility to apply our expert knowledge of human and organisation behaviour, backed up with a sound understanding of the business, to really make a difference to work and working lives. This is the kind of HR that business leaders and people would trust with the critical issues on which the long term survival of our organisations hinge.

And what an opportunity! There’s no need for HR to be an adjunct to “the business,” a department tasked with implementing business strategy efficiently and with minimal risk. It’s possible to be commercial and a champion of better work and working lives. It’s possible to influence not from the position of reliable deliverer (although let’s be clear I’m not knocking delivery!) but from a strength of character and principles that frame doing the right thing — bringing questions of fairness, employee voice and long term thinking to the table that you’ve fought hard for a seat at. If not for that, why do we need the seat?

By Laura Harrison

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