“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world” – Albert Camus


The origin of the word ethics is traced to the Greek word “Ethos” which means character and from the Latin word “mores” which means customs. Ethics define the goodness of an individual, his/her way of leading life, the various practices and value system. Workplace ethics refers to the ways employees govern themselves, the work attitude, the morality or lack thereof. An ethical workplace is one where ethical behaviour is practiced from top to bottom, and from the inside out. And it becomes a part of the persona of the organization. And since organization is an association of many individuals, workplace ethics tend to get influenced and framed by individual moral philosophy and perception of what is ethical and unethical.

An HR professional, while having numerous tasks of employee engagement and performance management, welfare, development, retention and motivation, he/she also constantly faces challenges to strive for business excellence while being morally and ethically responsible. It is this duality in the role of the HR which results in them encountering ethical difficulties on a regular basis and feeling being sandwiched between demands of the top management and what the law mandates.

Here are a few challenges faced by the HR which brings ethical dilemma in the picture:

Employment issuesOne of the most common problems faced by the HR manager is doing fitment of referral candidates especially the ones referred by top executives. The referral may not always match up to the job description in terms of qualification or experience. He/she may not even have complete documentation and the credentials are suspicious. The unpleasant situation is a cause of an ethical dilemma – whether to go ahead with hiring even when it is a misfit or go by the law. 

Compensation management: The salaries and perks of top executives and C-Suite executives often come under scrutiny for being obnoxiously high. The ethical issues surrounding the incentive plans and perquisites – raising basic salaries, retention bonus, higher incentive to sales team – sometimes give nightmares to the HR manager. The pressure of favouritism is a major deterrent of employee morale and motivation.

Performance management System(PMS): The PMS, specifically in the Indian context, has failed miserably for it is embedded with biasness. The bell curve system of appraisal rewards a minuscule workforce only. And the lucky ones are those who are known and close to upper management. The other methods of appraisal are also influenced by the personal choices of the supervisors. According to a study conducted in a UK IT firm, a performance appraisal system can fail to achieve its motivational effect when it is used to threaten job security. Another study conducted by leadership IQ established that only 17% of the employees had faith in the performance appraisal system being transparent and fair. It is a situation of dilemma for the HR manager as to how to justify rewards of undeserving employees

Privacy issues: Often, in order to protect the larger interest, organizations often keep a track record of all the activities of its employees, not only attendance but also external mail exchange, even printouts taken, coffee breaks, and transactions in salary accounts. This at times lead to breach of privacy of the individual as the HR manager is now privy to personal information of the employee which he/she may not be comfortable in sharing. It is simply intrusion of personal space of the employee and thus, unethical. Another aspect is associated with whistleblowing where the concerned person always faces the threat to his privacy. The HR practitioner often fails to resolve the conflict between the supporters and opponents of whistle-blower.

Restructuring and layoff.
 The mass layoff that took place in the beginning of the ongoing pandemic is an excellent example of the ethical dilemma HR managers must have faced during that time. To share the news of being laid off with an employee is one of the most difficult tasks for the HR practitioner in all aspects. It is done fairly; it is not considered unethical. The management has to be ensured to be as fair as possible.

Health and safety: More concentrated in manufacturing setups, HR managers face ethical dilemmas when companies fail to fairly compensate employees against occupational hazards and dangers encountered on an everyday basis. It fails to justify the compensation to kins of the victims. This again becomes a reflection of low workplace morale and ethics and often HR managers bear the brunt of the same. Even in institutional employment, where companies compromise the health and safety of their employees as an attempt to cut costs, HR managers face ethical dilemmas while handling grievances.

Recommendations and conclusion

  • It all has to start from top executives or C-Suite executives. They have to lead by example. The standards set by them will become benchmarks for the entire organization.
  • Have clearly defined and focused goals. When the company is dedicated to build a culture of honesty, fairness, trust and truthfulness for its organization by having high standards of adherence to organization framework, incidences of ethical dilemmas will be gradually optimised.
  • Regulation of remuneration of top management can be another measure to curb unethical practicesThe OODA (Observe Orient Decide Act) Loopa decision-making model developed by an Air Force Colonel, can be one of the means to optimize ethical dilemmas faced by HR professionals.

Lastly, while it may not be possible to avoid these situations at all times, the correct decisions will be the ones taken with clear conscience, trust in the system and are ethically correct. For they will be difficult to be challenged later. 

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