Although the political events in the UK in recent weeks have felt extraordinary, the fundamental issues being played out are not new. How far should principles be compromised in pursuit of power and influence. For the ethical HR practitioner, this question arises on a daily basis.
I have written before on this blog that the first step in understanding organisational ethics is to recognise that this subject is complex, not simple. Beware those commentators who will attempt to draw the crowds outside their circus tents with calls of “Three Simple Rules” or “The two things you need to know are…” It follows then that, although codes, principles and guides can be useful, the ethical HR practitioner is navigating without a map. There is no formula to apply here and no checklist or flowchart to follow.
Of course, there are practitioners who would have it that being an ethical activist is a simple thing. We have all met them. For them, the world is black and white and, regardless of the outcome in terms of organisational achievement, credibility or relationship building they will be satisfied by sticking rigidly to a pre-formed view of what is right. The real problem for these practitioners is the “Corbyn problem”: holding principles on tablets of stone hold them back from ever being at the top table where they can make a real influence. They will throw rocks at the HR sell-outs who are close to often controversial decisions, but from a distance. One intervention that achieves a more ethically informed business decision is worth a thousand that don’t.
This raises for us a question of where HR needs to be in the operation of a business that has ethical dimensions. I’m no fan of football analogies, but am prepared to compromise to illustrate the point:
Should HR be stood on the sideline cheering when things go well and heckling when they don’t? There are benefits to this: HR aren’t too close to decision making, they can keep perspective, they can asses without being overly involved. There is a chance the players will hear their calls and there is chance they will listen to them.
Should HR be the referee? With a rule book in their pocket and a whistle to blow, the HR function can have control over what is happening and, crucially, stop the game when it isn’t happy with what is happening.
Should HR be the goalkeeper? The game can play out but, at the crucial moment, the HR function can spring into action and save the moment. Keeping a watching brief does not mean being disconnected.
Should HR be a winger? By running with the team and becoming a playmaker the HR function focuses on what is happening, opportunities, and where a well timed intervention can lead to a magnificent result.
Of course, there will be those who immediately rush to say “No, HR should be the striker – scoring goals and being carried aloft by their team mates.” This is wrong. It is the business line that delivers the goal. Wherever else HR is, it isn’t there and pretending it is only hurts our credibility.
You will by now have reached your own conclusion on which one of those positions best suits HR, but bring it back now to our opening subject. How far do each of those positions require HR to take some collective ownership of all decisions that have an ethical dimension. Standing on the sidelines is an easy place from which to try and influence without having any real stake or role to play. If a game is played badly, the referee is well placed to criticise and speak grandly of how it should be done.
If HR is actually on the field playing the game though, it is not able to simply criticise and point to those tablets of stone. In the muck and bullets, the game can be played well but not always beautifully.