Ethical hrm is an oxymoron

There has been burgeoning interest in academic debates concerning the issue of ethical human resource management. The concern of the word ‘ethical’ in HR community is with action – doing something about a situation to bring it back into ethical equilibrium (Winstanley & Woodall 2000b). However, the contemporary HRM tends to be ‘strategic HRM’ that is more explicitly focused on organisational rationality, control, and profitability (Pinnington, Macklin & Campbell 2007). Therefore, a key subject of serious academic enquiry arising from these debates is whether the relationship between HRM and ethicality is contradictory. The aim of this essay is to examine both sides of the proposition. Some critics argue that HRM and ethicality are incompatible, while others believe there are certain ways in which ethical actions can be taken within HRM. In order to critically evaluate both sides’ argument, this essay will be divided into two main parts. First, the side which believes that HRM and ethicality is incompatible will be examined from two aspects of HRM. Next, the other side which believes there is no internal contradiction between HRM and ethicality will be analysed. Finally, a conclusion will be reached after critically evaluating the arguments from both sides. Relevant ethical frameworks will be applied to analysing various aspects of HR practice.

HRM and ethicality are incompatible

The key development in contemporary HRM has been the threatening of employment standards, pointed out by much of the contemporary discussions (Winstanley, Woodall & Heery 1996). More and more ethical issues around business may give reliable support for the position that HRM and ethicality are incompatible. However, in order to make a stronger case for this position, ethical issues will be analysed theoretically by using a variety of frameworks: Ethical Egoism, Justice Ethics, and Deontology. In particular, the analysis will proceed from two relevant aspects of HRM: the role of HRM and the HRM practice.

The role of HRM

The current emphasis on strategic HRM is inimical to ethics because they attend to the profit motive without giving enough consideration to other morally relevant concerns such as social justice and human development (Pinnington, Macklin & Campbell 2007). In particular, HRM function has transformed from the aims of traditional welfare to the aims of new strategic role (Carey 1999). The major theme in contemporary strategic HRM is how the human resource function can provide a unique source of sustainable competitive advantage in a global economy (Beer 1997). However, it raises an important ethical issue whether the pragmatic concerns for organisational profitability outweigh the moral issues. Take the issue of insecurity of employee as an example. In recent years, debate over the precise extent and significance of the trend towards greater job insecurity is ongoing. This may partly be a result of changes in the macroeconomic climate and re-emergence of mass unemployment. In order to restructure and strip out of costs, business achieves the goal through redundancy or outsourcing; also it derives from the adoption of more contingent contracts of employment and systems of reward (Winstanley, Woodall & Heery 1996). From an ethical perspective, the switch to a less secure, contingent employment relationship is problematic in two regards.

First, there is an important question whether it is ethical for employers to require employees to assume an increasing burden of economic risk simply because it is possible and profitable to do this. The HR decision of redundancy making employee less secure is predicated on Ethical Egoism. Ethical Egoism is a minimalist ethical position based on the Hobbesian assumption that ‘the only valid standard of conduct is the obligation to promote one’s own well-being above anyone else’s, an injunction to act on the basis of maximizing self-interest (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a). Based on this ethical argument, business works solely for profit maximisation with little regard for its employees whereas the role of HRM is supposed to be sustaining a committed, loyal and capable workforce required to deliver significant competitive benefits for the organisation (Pinnington, Macklin & Campbell 2007). Therefore, this ethical dilemma cannot be easily resolved. From this point of view, HRM and ethicality are incompatible.

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Another problematic feature of the shift towards greater risk and insecurity for employees is that this has been occurring at a time when other “stakeholders” have been acting to insulate themselves from risk (Winstanley, Woodall & Heery 1996). Because employers are in an increasingly powerful position to govern and dominate the employment relationship, it is possible to transfer risk from those who finance activity to those in paid employment (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a). The ethical question which arises here is whether this shift is equitable or compatible with norms of distributive justice. There are a number of potential ethical conflicts similar to risk transformation which cannot be resolved by HRM. Therefore, HRM and ethicality are incompatible when considering from the perspective of Justice Ethics within employment relationship.

The difficulty experienced by HR professionals in balancing their dual loyalties makes HRM difficult to be consistent with ethicality (Carey 1999). The current emphasis on strategic HRM heightens the potential conflict of loyalties for HR professionals who have to balance judgments of economic rationality with social responsibility (Lowry 2006). Both anecdotal and research evidence suggests that some HR practitioners find this position burdensome. They see conflict between the understanding of themselves as ‘friends of the workers’ and their new role as management’s instruments of competitive advantage (Carey 1999). Therefore, it is difficult to make ethical decisions on the part of HR managers because of their contradictory role between employer and employee. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that the ethical stance adopted by the HR manager is likely to be affected by their personally held moral convictions (Lowry 2006). When decision is made based on more than personal orientation, justice is hard to guarantee in organisation. Therefore, HRM and ethicality are difficult to coexist because of the role of HR managers.

The HRM practice

It is often argued that a lot of unethical issues caused by HRM practice within organisation are unavoidable (Barrett 1999), such as the use of psychometric tests for recruitment and development (the right to privacy and confidentiality of personal information, particularly where it is not relevant to the job), working time, and the electronic surveillance. Here, Right-based frameworks should be introduced as it is relevant to HRM practice. Right-based ethical frameworks tend to draw on concepts from the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. The Kantian framework epitomizes ‘deontological’ approaches to business ethics. Deontology generally covers approaches that link ethics to things that are good in themselves, rather than in relation to ‘telos’ or goals. Kantian approaches propound a number of rights, usually embracing issues such as the fundamental right to life and safety and the human rights of privacy, freedom of conscience, speech and to hold private property (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a).

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Perhaps the most obvious point of concern about HRM practice is that it reveals a rather scant regard for the autonomy of employees. Despite competence-based HRM seeks to promote conformity in attitudes and behaviors, is it ethical for employers to trespass on the employee’s autonomy? Does the employing organisation have right to intrude into the subjectivity of the employee, to scrutinise and manipulate? Such a trespass may never be complete but the tendency for a great deal of “sophisticated” HRM is to invade employee privacy (Winstanley & Woodall 2000b). Moreover, labour intensification, workplace regime of long hours and sometimes intrusive supervision can lead to excessive stress and ill health (Wiley 1998). According to Deontology, contemporary HRM practice is a violation of human dignity and human rights. From this perspective, the idea of HRM being ‘ethical’ is oxymoronic.

No contradiction between HRM and ethicality

Despite the fact that some argue HRM is management’s instruments of competitive advantage to maximize the profit, HRM is striving to become ‘ethical HRM’. Many professionals believe that HRM and ethicality are not oxymoronic and ethical HRM is possible to be achieved through compliance with statutory intervention and codes of practice. Moreover, Stakeholding, dialogue and discourse frameworks of ethics are important tools ensuring HRM operating ethically.

Statutory intervention, Regulation and codes of practice

Deontology emphasizes approaches that link ethics to things that are good in themselves, rather than in relation to ‘telos’ or goals. However, how can we really tell in advance what actions are wrong and why they are wrong? Some argue that actions taken by HRM comply with legal intervention and do not violate to ethicality. In particular, government does often take action to ensure ethical treatment of employees within organisations (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a). Moreover, regulatory bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality often seek to promote legal compliance and ethical behaviour by referring to codes of practice. Codes of practice are an important means of institutionalising ethics within HRM practice (Winstanley, Woodall & Heery 1996). Therefore, HRM may be practiced ethically through such actions. However, it remains to be seen whether such statutory intervention does make a difference. Besides, it has been argued that codes of practice have a limited role in supporting ethical HRM in employee development (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a).

The formalistic ethical approach to HRM

Upon the law and codes of practice, the formalistic ethical approach to HRM supplemented with action that focuses on more importantly ethical processes makes ethical HRM possible. The concept of Stakeholding has relevance to human resource management. It suggests an approach promoting greater involvement and voice of employees in managerial decision making, with more account to be taken of employee interests through a range of different consultation and participation methods (Winstanley & Woodall 2000a). According to stakeholder theory, employee well-being and ethical treatment may be justifiable.

There is no internal contradiction between HRM and ethicality because the diversity and dilemmas posed by conflicting values may unavoidable in the organisation. Value conflict is intrinsic to human behaviour and being ethical is not so much about finding one universal principal to govern all action, but more about knowing how recognise and mediate between often unacknowledged differences of view (Sloan & Gavin 2010). From this point of view, ethical HRM is about knowing how to handle the tricky situations, not just setting standards. However, it can be argued that just because different people holds different values, the understanding of what is ethical may be different from people in an organisation. For example, some people view the issue of redundancy unethical but some may think it is not. Therefore, to be ethical is critical and challenge.

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This essay has considered both sides of the argument concerning the possibility of ethical HRM. It has gone through many different areas of HRM to identify ethical issues by introducing a variety of relevant frameworks which have been used to analyse and understand the ethical dilemmas and ways of viewing the issues. It can be concluded that there are several barriers to ethical HRM: the contradictory position of employer and employee relations, the changing function of HRM and the primacy of the profit motive. Although it may be possible to construct ethical action through some processes, such as utilising stakeholding theory and compliance with law and regulation, I still believe that there are constraints to ethical action; ethicality and HRM are incompatible essentially. However, there are no universally agreed ethical frameworks. Therefore, it is crucial for future debate to consider the complex and multi-faceted nature of the issue of ethical HRM and strive for frameworks that could encourage ethical behaviours.


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