HR professionals pressurised to act unethically

Apr 23 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Despite the numerous corporate scandals of the past year, the 2003 Business Ethics Survey carried out by the US Society for Human Resources and Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) reveals a troubling picture of corporate America.

Nearly a quarter of HR professionals (24 per cent) feel pressured to compromise ethics standards all the time, fairly often or periodically. In comparison, only 13 percent indicated they felt pressured in 1997.

Nearly half - 49 percent - also say that ethical conduct is not rewarded in business today.

Pressure from senior management to follow directives (49 per cent) and meet overly aggressive business and financial objectives(48 per cent) were cited as the top two reasons why HR professionals compromised their organisation’s ethical standards. Helping the organisation survive (40 per cent), meeting schedule pressures (35 percent) and wanting to be 'a team player' (27 per cent) were other factors likely to compromise ethical behaviour.

“As we’ve seen numerous times over the last year, companies that failed to live up to their code of ethics are now financial shells compared to what they were, and many people’s lives have been adversely affected,” said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Susan R. Meisinger.

“HR must do more than clean up the mess after the damage has been done. They have a responsibility to step up and ensure that their organisations maintain cultures that demand ethical behaviours.”

Although nearly eight out of ten respondents said that their organisations have written ethics standards, HR professionals say that 30 per cent of senior management and 28 percent of CEOs are not committed to acting ethically.

Four out of ten also said that HR was not part of the 'ethics infrastructure' and is only tasked with cleaning up ethics violations.

Despite these findings, 85 percent of the survey respondents said senior management supported HR professionals adherence to organisations’ written ethics standards and 83 percent indicated that employees follow written ethics standards all the time or often.

More than a third of HR professionals (35 per cent) said that they often or occasionally personally observed misconduct over the last 12 months. This most commonly took the form of employees misreporting hours worked or lying to supervisors and management lying to employees, customers, suppliers or the public.

But as results of the survey indicate, the willingness of employees to report misconduct cannot be taken for granted. For example, a key challenge for most organisations in employees reporting ethics violations is that most did not believe that action would be taken or they feared retaliation from a supervisor or management.

HR professionals in government (55 per cent), health (44 per cent) and wholesale/ retail trade (43 per cent) were among those observing the most misconduct.

“This survey offers timely insights on ethics issues from HR professionals on the front lines,” said Stuart C. Gilman, President of the Ethics Resource Center. “As recent events show, business ethics is not only an individual concern but an organisation-wide matter with enormous implications for business leaders.”