Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company?

Say you’re a human resources director who honestly and fervently believes that treating employees fairly and with respect is a classic win-win practice. It makes for high productivity and happy workers, right?

If you work for an organization that shares your values, you’re a partner in a great match. But what happens if you don’t?

Kris Dunn’s HR oath

In a piece for Workforce Management, human resources expert Kris Dunn proposes a wonderfully edgy “HR Oath” (link here) for fellow practitioners. At least one provision of Dunn’s oath involves no small degree of personal risk:

Speak up at the possible risk of my job when I see my boss or a peer doing something that blatantly runs counter to the people mission of our company.

Kris, meet Mary

Over the summer, “Mary,” a long-time HR director blogging at, wrote about attending the annual meeting of the Society for Human Resource Management (link here). She noted that most of the sessions addressed important topics in constructive ways. However, she then acknowledged the reality of going back to the office after the convention was over:

I’ve seen it time and time again: HR pros attend training and come home with a wealth of positive recommendations for making their organizations more “people-centered”. Then they’re hit with the reality of their top brass pushing back, saying that – although People Are Our Greatest Asset – we’re not really willing to invest the time and money in ensuring that our people are protected from bullying, retaliation and other adverse employment actions. The organization weighs the cost of defending against a lawsuit or governmental agency investigation and decides it’s cheaper to fight than to do the right thing in the first place.

Neck, meet chopping block

Mary further wrote about her own experiences:

A true HR professional doesn’t sell out his or her principles even when ordered by management to discriminate or retaliate against an employee. I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my boss and her boss for whistleblowing activities – and that’s why I’m your Undercover HR Director.

So there you have it: She stuck to her principles — in effect putting one of Kris Dunn’s postulates into practice — but now she is writing as the Undercover HR Director. Yup, sometimes there are costs for doing the right thing.

Ethics, meet reality

For HR practitioners who see their role solely as an extension of upper-level management, questions of how to treat the rank & file are easy to resolve: Go with what the bosses want, even if it means that someone gets screwed over or unethical behavior is swept under the rug. In cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment, we know what this usually means.

Conscientious HR practitioners, however, face a dilemma when management philosophy and practice run squarely into the ethical treatment of workers. If they antagonize their bosses by doing the right thing, they, too, may find themselves on the firing line.

HR’s role

Obviously this calls into question HR’s role in shaping the culture of a workplace. Sometimes HR can “manage up” in terms of influencing an organization’s approach to employment relations. Good companies welcome this participation. At others, these opportunities may arise when timing and luck combine with extraordinary skill.

Furthermore, most personnel decisions are not so laden with dire consequences that HR is constantly caught in a bind. In fact, ethical HR folks potentially can serve as buffers between less-than-enlightened top management and those who are on the payroll.

All too often, however, it boils down to these truths: In workplaces that adopt and practice strong ethical values, HR practitioners can play a significant role in advancing a positive mission. By contrast, in workplaces that regard employees as expendable commodities, HR practitioners frequently become willing executioners of bad employment practices.


For a related post, “HR was useless,” go here.

2 responses

  1. Excellent article. I think most HR seniors face this dilemma and then focus on catering to their self-interest in survival rather than seeing the broader picture for the betterment of the employees and society.


  2. “you don’t know how much money we’ve saved this place”
    “oh you wouldn’t believe,i would love to tell you the things we’ve seen”

    these are the two things I most frequently hear HR folks say

    they are proud of “saving” their employer money- and use it as leverage for their compensation

    and they enjoy knowing the dirty little secrets- one HR professional who said comments like the quotes above sounded almost sociopathic when talking about it

    that is the profile of a certain large segment of HR people

    those with a conscience don’t last long, are miserable, or turn it into another occupation

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