Can HRM ever be ethical?

This post is part of a mini series in which I am engaging the students from my module in answering fundamental questions about HRM. The module is critically focussed (rather than mainstream), based on the necessity that HRM reflect and critique it’s own practices in order to improve. The aim of the series is to gather the views of the HR professionals of the future and generate some discussions inside and outside the classroom; the latter hopefully engaging some existing professionals. This second post follows on from last week’s question; What is HRM?

This week’s question, Can HRM ever be ethical? worked slightly differently in that it can clearly have a yes or no answer. However, I tempered this by asking the students to explain their answer. I was also open to students ‘sitting on the fence with a ‘yes but no’ or ‘sometimes’ type answer. Unlike the with the first question I preceded the exercise with the first slide of my lecture which focussed on HRM’s close connection with ethical considerations. I started with this quote by Margolis et al. (2007, p237; cited in Wilcox, 2012);

“HRM decisions have, as Margolis et al. (2007; p237) note, ‘the potential to change, shape, redirect and fundamentally alter the course of other people’s lives’ for better or for worse’.”

This was supported with ideas from Greenwood (2012) that it is inherently unethical to treat people as resources – to essentially put them in the same category as computers and office furniture and ‘use’ them. Ethical implications arise automatically from practicing HRM because we are dealing with humans. Although HR is often called upon to champion corporate ethics, it can only provide and ‘manage’ the framework; it cannot control people’s actions. Later on in the lecture I also emphasised the ‘system constraints’ (Beadle & Moore, 2006) HR professionals face in trying to act ethically, which linked to our consideration of the personal values of HR Professionals and the strength of the CIPD’s Professional Code of Conduct, i.e. where does our ‘loyality’ lie; to the Code or to the organisation? In the related seminar student’s were asked to rank (from a selection) the ‘top three values’ of a HR Professional. Perhaps not surprising that ‘Fairness’ was the top value in all my groups, and students had some really interesting examples of how this had been tested by some of the decisions they had been asked to make by organisations during their placements.

With this background in mind I expected that the majority of answers might sit on the fence or swing towards ‘no’, although perhaps this was coloured by what would be my own answer.  The actual results were pretty balanced; there were 20 ‘yes’, 19 ‘no’ and 12 ‘on the fence’. As with last week I asked the students to write their answer on a post-it and stick it on the whiteboard. Let’s start with the positives.

Yes, HRM can be ethical

Although ‘yes’ pipped ‘no’ to the post (just) the vast majority in this category were qualified answers. So, yes HRM can be ethical but only if certain conditions apply. A number thought that codes or rules that guide behaviour would ensure that HRM acted ethically, for example;

“Yes, rules are in place to ensure HR representatives are being ethical”, and;

“Yes – following a set of morals or equal treatment for all employees.”

A number of post-its also considered the wider context in which these codes were operating, for example, that they could only work if profit wasn’t the sole focus of the business and if employees were “treated as human”. However, others thought that once people got involved, the outcome was less certain;

“Yes, but people can have different views on what is ‘ethical’.”, and also;

“Yes, to an extent – as HRM is controlled by people, it is hard to say 100% that they will always ensure they act ethically correct.”

A significant number also thought that HRM was ethical because of the role it played in ensuring equal treatment and providing ethics training, while also recognising that ethics couldn’t just be the responsibility of HR;

“Yes, but it doesn’t have to be HR’s responsibility it should  be the company as a whole trying to be ethical.”

Sitting on the Fence

Although some of the post-its the students placed ‘on the fence’ could have fallen into either category (particulalry, ‘yes, but’), I thought they were the most inciteful. These two were amongst my favourites;

“HRM can be both ethical and unethical. Perceptions of ‘ethical’ may be different for different people.” and;

“Ethics in HRM is often a battle between personal moral code and that of the organisation. Depending on if the practitioner puts their own agenda first or not can be ethical.”

So, HR potentially as the ‘ethical voice’ in the organisation. A number of post-its contrasted this with the common economic perspective of the organisation;

“From the perspective of the organisation – yes – HR can work ethically but from the individual perspective – no – it is not possible.”, and;

“I think it is because HR managers have the role of developing employees and making them into better people as well as supporting them with things like ethical practices and regulations. However – there is always going to be the premise that these deeds boil down to business profit and success.”

The theme of the economic, profit-driven mentality of businesses preventing HR from being ethical continued strongly into the ‘no’ category….

No, HRM cannot be ethical

…As put simply by this post-it;

“It should be ethical. However, many organisations fail to provide ethical HRM due to personal vs profit issues.”

This category also again emphasised that people have different views about what is ethical, although the perspective of the organisation was likely to be paramount;

“No, because they are essentially employed by a business which is in existence to make profit and you are unable to control all employees.”, and;

“No, the company’s interest influences ethical decisions.”

Finally, this led some students to consider a wider perspective and ethical underpinning; that any decision may negatively impact somebody and that ethical decision making may be about minimising, rather than eliminating, harm;

“No, someone will always suffer as a result of a decision. The context is too broad – some situations could be ethical but HRM as a whole can’t.”, also;

“Due to ever changing circumstances HR can never always be 100% ethical but in general HR always tries to do the best for people therefore they try to always act ethically.”


A good one to end on I think. Thanks again to all the students for taking part in the activity and agreeing for their thoughts to be pulled together on the blog.


Beadle, R. & Moore, G. (2006). MacIntyre on Virtue and Organization, Organization Studies, 27(3), 323-340.

Greenwood, M. (2012). Ethical Analyses and HRM: A Review and Research Agenda, Journal of Business Ethics, 114(2), 799-817.

Wilcox, T. (2012). Human Resource Management in a Compartmentalized World: Whither Moral Agency? Journal of Business Ethics, 111, 85-96.

3 thoughts on “Can HRM ever be ethical?

  1. I think you have to define ethics first – are they things that are inherently good or bad in their own right, or simply behaviours that lead to good or bad consequences? And second, are they absolute standards of behaviour or things which change over time? All a bit philosophical but a necessary starting point in my view

    1. Yes this was all covered in the lecture in detail, both theoretically and practically. For the purposes of this post we could consider it simply as moral guidelines based on what the majority of people would consider right or wrong, so it is contextual.

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