An exploration of the role of ethics within human resource management

Some of you may be familiar with Plato’s Republic, written about 2400 years ago. Plato articulates a theory of an ideal state founded on the division of labour. In developing the framework for what he considers would be a supremely rational pattern of social organisation, Plato proposes (among other things) that the institution of private marriage be abolished in order to produce the type of children required by the state.

That is, in order to realise the ideal social condition, Plato is prepared to sacrifice a number of principles that he may have otherwise thought to be important. For example, Plato recommends the propagation of a myth concerning the origin of different types of person: some are ‘gold’, some ‘silver’ and others base’ metals. Such a myth is designed to pacify potential objections concerning the relative status enjoyed by philosopher ‘kings’, auxiliaries, etc. The point is that Plato is prepared to sacrifice even truth itself in the service of his ideal polity.

In a similar fashion, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depend for their prosperity on a division of labour based on the ‘production’ of different types of person that have been genetically and environmentally programmed to fit their particular station in life.

Matters of national concern

At first glance this may seem to be of limited relevance in a discussion of ethical issues and Human Resource Development. However, I want to begin today’s seminar by reflecting on the link between ethics and policy at a national level. Reports such as that prepared by Laurie Carmichael involve the articulation of strategies designed to promote the development of the personal and collective potential of citizens.

However, it is important to ask questions concerning both the ends to be achieved and the means to be employed. What exactly is society’s aim in developing a training strategy? A range of potential aims might include: to aid economic development, to ensure national security, to promote the conditions for justice and so on.

The first thing to note is that these aims are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, you could argue that they are complementary. Much debate takes place as if the pursuit of one goal must always be at the expense of another. Naturally enough, interest groups tend to focus attention on their bit of the agenda. Some interest groups are so successful that they capture public attention in a way that allows them to exclude and invalidate other viewpoints.

This is of course a political process. But from the point of view of social policy it is still necessary to ask why these aims and not some others have been chosen? The ability to answer such questions concerning national aims and goals is going to depend, in some fundamental sense, on an articulation of a view of the ‘good’ life to be pursued. And this is to be squarely in the realm of ethics.

Professionals working in the field of human resources are unlikely ever to have a deciding vote when considering such matters. However, this is not to diminish responsibility when it comes to preparing policy advice for consideration by those who govern. In a sense, professional status may provide an opportunity to affect the agenda about aims. However, it is even more likely that the professional’s knowledge and skill will be drawn upon when it comes to determining the means to secure the desired end.

So let us return to Plato. Some important principles were sacrificed by Plato in the service of what he believed to be a greater good. In other words, were Plato’s proposed means ‘appropriate’ to his stated end? It is of course possible to assess the appropriateness of the means without making any assessment of the relative worth of the end.

For example, it might be that the chosen means undermine the validity of the end. But what of the end itself? Can it be justified? For example, if the sole aim of society is to maximise the efficiency with which resources are used in the economy, then why not so organise society to reflect this priority. Why not turn technology loose to genetically engineer an adaptable drone who lives and works in a state of blissful ignorance?

All of this borders on the extreme. However, it is important to consider the way in which training policies fit within a broader agenda. As noted above, the existence of complementary aims can be disguised when the terms of debate are dominated by one particular point of view. It may be that the professional has a particular responsibility to develop a critical faculty that can be applied in the assessment of the relationship between means and ends. This would be to commit oneself to asking and answering questions such as:

  1. What national aims are being explicitly served by this policy?
  2. What other aims does society seek to pursue?
  3. Do the means proposed allow for explicit and implicit aims to be realised?
  4. Can these aims be justified?

Institutional factors

Discussion about the relationship about means and ends goes beyond issues of policy. One of the fundamental insights in ethics is that human beings ought always to be considered as ends and never as means. Immanuel Kant is credited with the formal articulation of the idea that human society is a “kingdom of ends”. Kant was, of course, building on older traditions such as that in which all men are seen as being equal in the sight of God. The details of Kant’s arguments are not so important, in the context of this seminar, except to say that his basic idea is that human beings are the source of all value and that, as such, each person is formally equal in the considerations of all others.
If people are ends and not means and if they are to be recognised as being of equal importance, then what are the ethical implications for those who would deploy expertise in the management of human relations?

The point is that such an ethical principle has great bearing on the way in which one conceptualises the place of training and education in society. Allegiance to this principle even gives grounds for misgivings concerning the term ‘Human Resources’. Use of the word ‘resource’ implies that people are some sort of stockpile to be ordered up and deployed in the interests of others.

Perhaps a better term might be ‘Human Relations’. This would surely leave scope for all the traditional functions engaged in by the professional.

If people are ends and not means and if they are to be recognised as being of equal importance, then what are the ethical implications for those who would deploy expertise in the management of human relations?

The first thing to note is that it may be necessary to avoid a temptation to be paternalistic in the evolution of policy and practice. For the time being, there is a fortunate congruence between management policy and a broad ethical principle that recognises the autonomy of employees.

Current best practice in management recognises the need for employee involvement in decision-making. The training environment is beginning to reflect this understanding that the success of programmes in multi-skilling, quality circles etc. all depend on there being a pool of competent, flexible employees. One reason for the blurring of distinctions between education and training has been the realisation that modern industrial practice requires a workforce possessing many of the attributes developed under the principles of liberal education. These include a healthy respect for the autonomy of individuals.

However, it is interesting to pursue questions concerning the real motivation for such an approach. Does a commitment to seeing employees as ends extend beyond that which is economically expedient? In other words, what would happen if it could be clearly demonstrated that the ideas and techniques of Ford and Taylor could deliver increased profits? One need not be too cynical to conclude that the assembly lines would be up and running in very little time at all. It could be argued that the owners and managers of businesses have an ethical responsibility to maximise profits. However, should this be at the expense of developing the skills of employees in ways that recognise their status as ends?

Other issues that immediately come to mind include:

  1. Is access to training a right, and what corresponding duties might there be?
  2. If it is a right, should it be apportioned in the most cost-effective way (eg. should people nearing the age of retirement be eligible for training)?
  3. If the autonomy of employees is to be respected, should training and education include measures to improve their critical capacity?
  4. Should the cost of training only be borne by business to the extent that it contributes to improved profitability?

These are but some of the issues that might be considered by a person concerned to examine ethical issues arising in the field of HRD. However, there is one other issue that adds to the complexity of the debate. This arises from the fact that changing patterns of work require an increasing number of people to develop and deploy a ‘values base’ consistent with a corporate culture.

While the ‘assembly line’ model of industrial and commercial organisation may have replaced work with toil, it nonetheless made relatively few demands on the intellectual or emotional resources of people treated as interchangeable ‘cogs in the machine’. Under such arrangements it is possible to function effectively without any part of the self becoming engaged in the structures of work. This, of course, led many people to feel alienated from the world of work. However, it is tempting to conjecture that others may have preferred this to a situation in which engagement of the personality is required and responsibility must be shared.

In an environment in which the importance of ‘corporate culture’ has been recognised, the HRD professional is faced with a raft of ethical issues that relate to the nature and role of socialisation in the workplace. In fairly general terms, socialisation is the process by which individuals are introduced to an organisation’s way of life so that they come to learn the organisation’s ‘cultural’ traditions. In fact, the process of socialisation tends to go beyond fostering a knowledge of ‘cultural values’ to a stage in which the values are internalised as the individual’s own.

If modern forms of organisation require people to bring their values to bear in the world of work, then one challenge is going to be the discovery of ways in which disparate values structures can be made harmonious. One temptation might be for an organisation to develop its own distinctive ethos, then attempt to convey it to all participants. Whether or not this should be so is open to question. As Randolph Churchill once quipped: “You can teach a man to build a car but you cannot tell him where to drive it”.

Questions to be addressed include:

  1. Whose values –  owners, managers, employees, the community at large, a consensus etc.?
  2. What account (if any) should be taken of cultural differences?
  3. How (and should) indoctrination be avoided?
  4. Should values be uniform across industries, sectors etc.?

Once again, these are but a sample of the types of issues that need to be considered.

Corporate ethics strategies

It could be argued that HRD professionals have an important role to play in the formation of a more ethical society. After all, as education becomes better recognised as a lifetime process (most of which is structured in the world of work), so it is that employment-related training will concentrate on both the cognitive and affective domains with equal attention.

So it is that training and education would include workshops designed to promote ‘company values’. Part of this process might include a process of socialisation designed to undermine those customs and practices that lead to inefficient or unethical behaviour. While it is certainly possible to proceed in such a fashion, it is open to serious reservation on the grounds of ethics and efficacy.

As would be fairly obvious, such a programme appears (at the very least) to take little account of the interests and concerns of those subjected to its measures. Once again, individuals are being treated as means to securing an end –  only the end in this case is that of promoting sound ethical behaviour. Even if such a process falls short of indoctrination, it does little to promote or even recognise the autonomy and dignity of the people concerned. In this first respect, the programme would be self-defeating. Unless the ethical sense is founded on a set of authentic commitments, it is unlikely to take root.

People are more likely to come to see the true value of one another if they are treated in a manner that is consistent with a recognition of their intrinsic worth. It then becomes possible to reconcile some of the tensions that have emerged in the preceding discussion.

For example, a recognition of employees as ends will foster a climate of opinion in which the importance of human relations is maintained in terms of the long-term advantage for all. This is to reinforce the type of strategy built on the principle that profits follow relationships.

Training and education will be designed to take account of the practice and experiences of employees. Some organisations have an individual or department draw up a code of ethics for each employee to sign. The alternative is to build ‘from the ground up’ so that each person affected has a sense of ownership of the code.

Not only will people ‘own’ the code, it will also reflect the realities of their practice. There is little point in having formal provisions that are irrelevant or impossible to apply.

HRD professionals will need to do more than look at the nature of codes, training etc. There is a need to examine the structure of work organisations and practices. What is the aim of this organisation? How can this best be achieved using the resources and people at hand?

Does the organisation require forms of behaviour or the application of techniques that frustrate the achievement of all aims (explicit and implicit)? Do patterns of remuneration and evaluation reflect the organisation’s stated objectives. For example, does the board spout pious sentiments about ethics but reward the unscrupulous but successful.

None of this is inimical to the efficient and effective functioning of an organisation. To the extent that authentic commitments form part of the motivation of employees, so they will be more likely to strive to support the activities of the unit to which they belong. People will even develop attachments sufficient to encourage them to be proactive in support of an organisation that treats them with the dignity reserved for ultimate ends.

The HRD Professional

All of this implies that people working in the field of human relations have sufficient independence to allow them to exercise a critical function in the organisation. As such, they are called upon to exercise some of the defining functions of the professional. Chief among these is a concern to promote (or at least preserve) the public good. This will frequently place the professional, who is part of a larger organisation, in an invidious position. A recognition of this fact may be the first step along the way in terms of meeting the challenges of the position.

To recognise the public good is to engage in a debate. It is to recognise that there is a range of interests that need to be accommodated. While much of the above has been concerned with issues to do with the way employees might be treated, it is important to note that the list of stakeholders includes management, shareholders, customers, suppliers, professional advisers, the wider public, and so on. In contributing to the development and maintenance of an organisation’s ethos, the HRD professional will need to be aware of the interests of each –  not least because they intersect with the interests of parties more immediately affected.


It remains to be said that ethics is about the relationships between people. Being comfortable in the ethical landscape is of immense practical importance. Given the conjunction of these two facts it is not surprising that there are so many issues confronting the HRD professional.