HR Leads Business

Sep 29, 2016 | Barry Lawrence, Staff Writer

HR's Ethics in the Digital Age of HR

The human resource manager’s role to ensure business-wide ethical practice has grown more difficult in the digital age. If a company does have an ethical red flag, chances are good that it will be found out. Today’s HR leaders must expand their ethical charges, and that includes technology guidance and the oversight on the use of data by the organization.

Clarissa Peterson, chief human resources officer and ethics officer for Abt Associates, believes that now, more than ever, ethics is “the price of admission in high-performing organizations,” especially in an environment where technology has revolutionized the global workplace. Peterson says it’s the role of the human resource management professional to ensure that ethical norms are upheld.

“We are seeing an increase in media reports of business and government leaders displaying unethical behavior,” writes Peterson, a contributor to The Rise of HR, a compilation of HR thought leadership sponsored by the HR Certification Institute® (HRCI®). “In these cases, unethical and sometimes illegal practices by a few have the potential to tarnish the organization as a whole.”

“For HR professionals, that means helping people translate the ethical realities of the companies that they work for into cultural realities in which they live and work,” Peterson contends. “Through effective recruiting and training, we can bridge that gap, equipping our teams with the language and coaching [to] prepare them for ethical challenges.”

Ethics in a Transparent Word

Ethics is extremely challenging in a data-driven world. The ethical use of data itself, by the organization, its employees, and its many departments is a growing concern.

Companies are careful to protect the use of sensitive data. At the same time, customers expect data sharing by companies, and many businesses view this as a strategic advantage, writes Wayne Brockbank, a clinical professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a contributor to The Rise of HR. Even HR professionals “design practices that encourage and facilitate the electronic and social sharing of information,” he notes.

The HR profession must spend more time “thinking about and developing strategies for operating in what has become a transparent world,” writes Susan Meisinger, SPHR, J.D., a columnist on HR leadership for Human Resources Executive Online and also a contributor to The Rise of HR. At the same time, HR professionals themselves must be “communication ninjas” to meet the information needs of customers and employees.

A Delicate Balance

HR professionals must encourage leaders to be persuasive about ethics, including the ethical use of data and the risk factors at play. Of course, HR leaders are also data users and sharers. HR professionals must be the central models of ethical practice. But this can be tricky in the digital age.

Sure, employees thrive in organizations that are more open and transparent. But some level of restraint may be necessary, writes Chris Arringdale, the president of Reviewsnap, for ERE Media (The Ugly Side of Transparency in the Workplace).

While “transparency rules in today’s workplace,” Arringdale writes, each company must determine the level of transparency that works with the organization’s culture and the personalities of its workforce.” Excessive transparency, he believes, can not only get the organization in hot water, it can even be distracting, especially for businesses suffering from instability and financial difficulties.

“Employers who share too much information about the business run the risk of creating unwanted stress for employees who may constantly be thinking about how their job impacts the bigger picture,” he concludes. “While this mindset is the cornerstone of a valuable employee, it can be disrupted by transparency.”

An Expanding Circle of Ethical Compliance

HR must create expanded policies and serve as an important moderator – not only for organizational and people ethics, in the traditional sense, but also as an ethical monitor of modern-day communication tools and data. This means not only understanding ethics, but also being aware of the digital tools used inside and outside the company, and the kinds of data that the company has in its possession.

“Ethics matter to your customers and your partners,” writes Michele Goetz, an analyst for Forrester. “Providing transparency to your data governance policies and the appropriate mechanisms for data owners to truly govern their data at points of interaction and engagement is critical.”

Josh Bersin, a principal of Bersin by Deloitte, part of Deloitte Consulting LLP, calls for HR to become more informed about technology, data and research. This means being familiar with software, systems, analytics, mobile tools and supporting technology vendors.

“We in HR must be vigilant of new technology and constantly research and study how it impacts the workplace and all our management practice,” Bersin concludes in The Rise of HR.

Decisions about the ethical use of data can no longer be left up to the IT department’s CTO, the marketing or other divisions alone. HR must play a central role, working with and throughout the organization, to ensure ethical practices in an age of transparency. This includes monitoring an organizations overall practices as well as the ethical use of data.