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.


What is HRM?

For those of you who aren’t aware, I run a module for students in the final year of their undergraduate degree called Employee Resourcing and Development. In order to differentiate the module, as well as building on the student’s knowledge from their first two years of study, I have been developing a more critical (as opposed to mainstream) focus.

The students returned last week and so far I’ve delivered two lectures; an introduction to the module, including a reminder about critical reading, writing and thinking. If I want my students to come away with one thing from my module, it’s to improve these skills. This will support them not only in their dissertations but will hopefully also help them find (or refine) their own perspectives so they can question the empty rhetoric we are all constantly bombarded with. So with the importance of questioning in mind, I asked them to use these questions to analyse an extract of this article in Harvard Business Review. On the basis of what we are presented with can we believe what the author is telling us?

At the end of the first lecture I tasked the students to think about, and answer the question What is HRM? This was also the title of my second lecture. At the start of this lecture I asked my students to anonymously write their answers on post-it notes (as many as they wanted to fill) and stick them on the whiteboard. I was clear to them that I would be drawing their ideas together on the blog and asked those who didn’t agree to put their post-it notes in a separate area. I provided the students with four underpinning questions to help them if they were a bit stuck with the broader question, which were; what is the purpose of HR? What does HR do? Is HR important and why? And What is HRM trying to achieve?

Obviously this isn’t an academic study, but a classroom exercise to support the students in their thinking outside the classroom. However, I think their ideas and opinions are an interesting barometer. I hope the students themselves might use this forum to consider their thoughts, and also that we might be able to engage some practitioners or external HR thinkers in our discussion.

There were a number of key themes, some of which were at least guided by the sub-questions, although there was one in particular which I was quite surprised at, which I will save until last.

Theme: HRM is the link between employer and employees

There were around 12 post-it notes that mentioned HRM’s role as smoothing the relationship between an employer (or organisation/management) and the employees. This is illustrated by thoughts such as,

“HRM is the vital link between managers and employees and looks out for the rights of employees.”


“HRM is how to make the relationship between the organisation and the employee as good as possible.”

Some went further towards the employee side of this;

“HRM is the function of the business that takes care of the employees.”

This is certainly in line with some scholars who we discussed in the lecture that followed, although the critical view is that HR should represent the rights of the employees (and may often be the only place in the organisation that does so) but that it has lost (or ‘sold out’) on this potential in order to legitimate it’s own existance and gain a seat at the strategic table (e.g. Wilcox, 2013).

Theme: HRM as a function

The second largest category, with 21 post-its (bearing in mind that some comments had relevance to more than one category) was HRM as a function. These are largely in answer, I suspect, to the question of what does HR do, although some students referred to the ‘purpose’ of HRM being to undertake these functions on their post-its. Training and development was widely mentioned as a function of HR, as was recruitment/staffing. Performance and pay/benefits also received a few mentions.

Theme: HRM provides strategic direction

Around 8 post-it notes focussed on HRM as a strategic focus. We’re not covering strategic HRM via the lectures until this week, but some students clearly already have a grounding in this area;

“HRM provides strategic sense of direction for any organisation. Typically in the past HRM was seen as a [sic] Admin type role now it helps support the overall direction.”

“Assists the organisation in achieving it’s strategic business plan, by recruiting, retaining and developing the best people.”

A few also made the link between high level strategic goals and employee behaviour in achieving these;

“HRM – the strategic management of employees to help achieve business goals and aid overall performance.”

Theme: HRM manages/directs employees

I felt the highest number of post-it notes (26) fell into this category. Some of the these were fairly simply stated;

“People Management” and “Managing personnel”

It was this category that was a surprise to me as I had never considered HRM as ‘managing’ employees; this being really down to line managers. However many comments alluded to HRM having a large degree of control, such as;

“The process of managing people in organisations – in a structured manner.”

“It manages people within companies.”

“HRM is the governance of an organisation’s employees.”

I would be interested to if students took a more critical view on this following the lecture in which I outlined mainsteam HR’s tendency to assume that people act in a logical, rational and predictable manner.

Closing thoughts: holistic view

There were a few post-its that took what I would call a more holistic view of HRM. Three or four of these referred to the importance of HR (one of the questions) and/or, of the organisation’s people, such as;

“HRM is the life and blood of any business.”

“Human: most valuable and necessary resource – special treatment.”

And I’m going to finish with this one:

“[HRM has] Many alternative meaning, depends on internal and external factors and the different theoretical perspectives.”


I would like to thank the students for their involvement in the teaching session and for allowing me to discuss their ideas on the blog.

The Art of Seeing

Some time ago I read a neuroscience book that suggested a technique for seeing issues from another person’s perspective. The process, accompanied by an explanatory diagram, involved imagining yourself physically occupying the same space as that person, as well as subsequently picturing yourself as an impartial observer. This was supposed to occur as you were interacting with said other person, which the book reassured would become easier with practice. Despite the impossibility, in my opinion, of accompanying all these difficult tasks at once, it completely ignores the important cues that people give regarding their potential feelings and behaviour, both verbally and physically. Continue reading “The Art of Seeing”

Place Based Leadership

“The social world is accumulated history” (Bourdieu, 1986)

“The social space we occupy has been historically generated.” (Skeggs, 1997)

One of the best parts of research is when you stumble across one or two pieces of information that enable your current thinking to ‘fall into place’, even if this is only temporary. That was the feeling I got when yesterday when I came across these two quotes in quick succession. They’re from two of the theorists that I see as being central to my thesis. When this happens, it can be interesting to consider the process of crystallisation behind such moment of clarity.  Continue reading “Place Based Leadership”

My Own Reflection

I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my middle daughter. I smile, not just at the funny parts, but when Matilda is curled up with her nose in a book while the rest of the family is watching TV. Certainly my parents were not like Matilda’s, but I do remember them making objections to me doing the same, particularly in social situations. Continue reading “My Own Reflection”

Woman gets top job

The news that Theresa May has been appointed leader of the Conservative Party, and tomorrow will Prime Minister, brought back to my mind some research I came across while developing my new module. She is adamant she will make a success of Brexit; that which has been called the poisoned chalice, and long “May” she succeed (the pun headline writers will surely be having a field day after Cameron). Continue reading “Woman gets top job”