The Ethical Limit: How Far Is Too Far For an HR Person to Go?

© Marek -
© Marek -

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about the not-so-fun aspects of HR that a friend has been dealing with lately.

To make a long story short, his company has done wrong, admitted as much, but won’t fix the issue. And because it is a non-profit with a solid mission, the typical response of going after them is off the table. He can’t bring himself to do it.

Throughout the entire ordeal, I’ve wondered how I would live with myself as the HR person for this organization. Then I remembered that I had done a few things that I wasn’t exactly proud of in HR. And if you’ve been in HR for long enough, you’ve probably done the same.

Beyond the legal limit

After my last HR job, I wasn’t excited about going back heavy into employee relations. If it had another name, it would have been the “Too Much Information” department.

I learned way too many slightly terrifying secrets about co-workers, employees, and company management. Most of these terrifying things were more of a personal nature but certainly some of them crossed into the realm of legal issues that could possibly disrupt business.

The legal line was a thick black line on the ground for me. I’m a loyal guy but I’m not going to jail or getting personally sued on behalf of you wanting to ignore a few federal or state laws.

I’m the guy who had to “un-fire” an employee on FMLA leave. Then, I had to make sure I didn’t get fired because I went above everyone when they tried to block me. They thought this former/current employee was a schmuck who would just take it. They would find out later that the schmuck assumption was off-base but that’s another story.

Beyond that, the legal limit becomes a more tricky, ethics-based question. Doing the right thing can involve ticking off the employee involved, their boss, your boss, and/or pitting some departments against one another. How you choose what to do depends a lot on how you view the role of HR in these situations.

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Trying to do the right thing

Some view HR’s role as executing on what the business tells you to do. So your superiors tell you to pull something off, you do it with all of that loyalty going to the employer. You fall on those ethical knives personally so people can be mad at HR instead of the boss. Good Boy Scout — here’s your badge and gold watch.

Others view HR’s role as serving the company best by being protective and vigilant so the company avoids violating any laws. These mythical, ethical do-gooders believe that by upholding the law and avoiding every litigation possibility, they are best serving the company. However, these people are widely considered useless by managers and are routinely gone around.

If we’re more honest, HR pros typically fall between these standards. Managing several large reduction in force during my time in HR, going through our possible cut list always ended up with a bunch of conundrums. Letting go a good employee simply based on years at the company, or because a manager simply didn’t like them, or because we made a mistake in hiring them two months before?

Behind closed doors, you fought and won a lot of those battles (battles you would never be thanked for). But the ones you lost? You probably put on the company face, relied on your training, and made it as painless as possible. And if you lost due to a particularly bad question of ethics in a certain situation? You might not have quit that day, but you probably disengaged and started calling people and looking around for something else.

So much in business ethics focuses on finances and on simplistic employee relations issues. The problem is, nobody can ever tell you how to deal with a situation in which Bob reports that Steve is sexually harassing his wife and Steve counters that he’s only doing it because Bob is cheating on his wife with Steve’s daughter. You get to figure that one out on all your own, kids.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.