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The ethical dimension of human resource management
Human Resource Management Journal
London 2000

--------------------------------------------------------------------------- Authors: Diana Winstanley

Authors: Jean Woodall

Volume: 10

Issue: 2

Pagination: 5-20

ISSN: 09545395

Subject Terms: Studies
Human resource management
Business ethics

Classification Codes: 9175: Western Europe
9140: Statistical data
6100: Human resource planning
2400: Public relations

Geographic Names: United Kingdom


The relative absence of debate about ethical issues within the area of human resource management is addressed. IT is argued that ethics is not about taking statements of morality at face value; it is a critical and challenging tool. The discussion starts with what should be familiar terrain: ethical arguments that uphold a managerialist position, such as ethical individualism, utilitarianism, and "Rawlsian" justice. Other theories are then introduced that broaden the field of ethical concern in an endeavor to be more socially inclusive: stakeholding and discourse theory. Copyright Eclipse Group Ltd. 2000

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Until very recently the field of business ethics was not preoccupied with issues relating to the ethical management of employees. Apart from the development of ethical awareness among managers (Snell, 1993; Maclagan, 1998) and the ethical dimension of change management processes (Mayon White, 1994; McKendall, 1993), there has been little debate around the ethical basis of much HR policy and practice. The main debates in business ethics have centred around the social responsibility of business in relations with clients and the environment. They only touch on employee interests as one of several stakeholders or only to the extent that employees might suffer adversely in terms of health and personal integrity as a consequence of their role in producing the organisation's goods and services. The fact that the way in which employees are managed may invite ethical scrutiny appears to have been overlooked. Conversely the academic discipline of HRM has not been inclined to admit an ethical perspective, which recently struck some leading authors in the field as 'a curiously undeveloped area of analysis'(Mabey Salaman and Storey 1998: 15), though there have been some articles in professional and academic journals (Legge,1997,1998; Miller,1996a,1996b).

Three UK conferences on ethical issues in contemporary HRM in 1996, 1998 and 2000 have highlighted many evolving themes in this area, as reported in a special issue of Personnel Review (Vol. 25, no. 6,1996) and in Business Ethics: A European Review (Vol. 6, no. 1,1997). This article seeks to go beyond either dissecting individual HR practices to identify whether they are moral or debating whether the totality of HR is 'ethical'. Instead, it seeks to raise the level of ethical debate by using a variety of frameworks and it argues that raising ethical awareness and sensitivity is the main task for both HR academics and professionals.

This article concludes by making a strong case for the ethical 'rearmament' of HR professionals, by suggesting practical ways in which the exercise of ethical sensitivity and awareness might become a legitimate reference point alongside the prevalent recourse to arguments justifying `the business case', 'strategic fit' and 'best practice'.


On the whole, ethical issues have been of marginal significance to the unfolding academic debates around human resource management. The Harvard analytical framework for HRM (Beer et al, 1984: 16) was one of the earlier models to suggest that, as well as organisational well-being, HRM had to concern itself with the promotion of individual and societal wellbeing. This reasserts the primacy of the stakeholder as opposed to the shareholder model of the firm, an issue on which the battle lines have been clearly drawn in business ethics literature. The 'business is the business of business' proponents are aligned on one side (Friedman, 1962; Sternberg, 1994, 1997) and those who suggest that organisations should meet the needs of a wider range of stakeholders, including employees (Freeman, 1984; Royal Society of Arts, 1995; Wheeler and Sillanpaa, 1997), on the other.

Any emphasis on ethics and employee well-being in the HR debate is therefore very contentious and has become more so as organisations have struggled for survival in the last 20 or so years. The ethical dimension of HR policy and practice has been almost ignored in recent texts on HRM, where the focus has shifted to 'strategic fit' and 'best practice' approaches. The focus on high performance HR practices developed in the US (Huselid, 1995) and in the UK (Guest and Peccei, 1994), and widened out through seminars (such as the ESRC/BUIRA seminar series on 'The contribution of HR strategy for business performance', special issues of journals (Human Resource Management Journal, Vol. 9, no. 3, 1999) and a plethora of research projects and articles, both supportive (Guest, 1997; Tyson, 1997; Tyson and Doherty, 1999) and more critical (Purcell, 1999). However, there is enough argument to the contrary to suggest that employee well-being and ethical treatment are as justifiable a focus as 'strategic fit' and 'best practice'. There are a number of reasons for this. First the `enlightened self-interest' model of business suggests that a business will be more successful if it pays attention to ethics, as this will enhance its reputation with customers and improve motivation among employees (Wilson,1997). Secondly, the `business of business is business' argument is also not paramount in not-for-profit organisations, including most of the public sector, social business, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the voluntary sector. Finally there is a powerful argument that the wider economic system and ultimately the business organisations within it exist to serve human and societal needs rather than the opposite.

At this point it is important to recollect that ethical concern took a central place in the earlier history of professional human resource management. Its origins in personnel management and employee welfare date back to the formation of the Welfare Workers Association in 1913, a forerunner of the IPD, and even earlier with relation to the social reformers, philanthropists and non-conformist religious groups that emerged during the course of the UK industrial revolution. Obviously the scope of professional personnel practice subsequently developed to cover other aspects, including industrial relations, manpower planning, organisation development and, most recently contribution to and involvement in overall organisational corporate strategy. Despite concerns that the original welfare role of personnel professionals might compromise the status and strategic base of HRM, it has not been totally eclipsed. Yet, over time, the notion of employee wellbeing has been reduced to a more specific set of practices confined around 'wellness' programmes and health screening, rather than extended to the wider experience an individual has of organisational life, including the demands of work roles, how their performance is managed and the support and development they receive.

Maybe if we look back over the last 100 years, we might see improvements in the welfare and position of employees, but this has not been based on steady progress. The peak of the late 1960s and '70s was followed by a deterioration in the '80s and early '90s. It could also be suggested that, although many employees are better off in material terms than 100 years ago, a new series of pressures have led to greater psychological ill-health with more stress, anxiety, insecurity and exhaustion from long hours of work. More research is needed to examine the quality of working life and subjective experience of employees in the context of the organisational changes taking place.

A concern with job design and employee motivation was indeed one of the means by which ethical treatment of employees and concern for their welfare were sustained well into the 20th century. The influence of the HR movement through the early work of Elton Mayo (1933), and the later work of Herzberg (1968) and Maslow (1970) and the 'Quality of working life' movement in the 1970s, are all important illustrations of this. The focus on work systems and job design to satisfy human motivational needs, especially the need for autonomy variety, skill development and self-actualisation, were firmly on the management agenda in the 1960s and '70s. Today they only receive a glancing acknowledgment relative to the emphasis on 'high performance' and 'high commitment' work systems linked to efficiency and effectiveness rather than intrinsic job satisfaction.

Part and parcel of the HR literature is the industrial relations literature which has also highlighted participation and involvement issues, a key theme in contemporary partnership and stakeholder approaches mentioned below. In addition, some work focused on issues of power sharing and control, leading to a number of industrial democracy experiments in the 1960s, notably the Lucas Aerospace project. Some of this early industrial relations literature has raised the more general issue of social responsibility (Flanders, 1970), a focus which largely became eclipsed in later work.

An enduring academic and professional interest in ethical issues is present around the subject of organisational justice, in the exercise of both substantive and procedural justice. Interest in the former has been sustained by a concern with fairness and equal opportunity Research into discrimination, particularly in the areas of recruitment, selection and career development, has addressed issues of gender, marital status, race and ethnicity and, more recently age. Voluntary action on fairness and equal opportunity by organisations, individuals and professional groups has included codes of professional practice and training both within professional education and subsequent professional updating. Equality legislation since the mid 1970s has acted as the main spur. Turning to procedural justice, this has always been a strong theme in both professional practice and academic research in industrial relations. Fair process as well as fair outcome has been an abiding concern in collective bargaining, remuneration, job evaluation and recruitment. However, once again, the changes brought about by current HRM approaches have led to a marginalisation of these issues. In the case of reward management, for instance, 'good practice' has traditionally highlighted the role of job evaluation as a basis for ensuring fairness and justice; more recently this has been substituted by an emphasis on strategic focus, flexibility and individual and group performance.

Finally there has also been some interest in the role of the HR specialist as a guardian of ethics, with the HR function assuming the role of `ethical stewardship' and ethical leadership. Most discussion of this has appeared sporadically in professional HR journals. For example, some writers have stressed the HR manager's role in raising awareness about ethical issues, in promoting ethical behaviour and in disseminating ethical practices more widely among line and project managers. Another ethical role for HR professionals involves communicating codes of ethical conduct, providing training in ethics, managing compliance and monitoring arrangements, and taking a lead in enforcement proceedings (Arkin, 1996; Pickard, 1995; Johns, 1995; Wehrmeyer, 1996). Where ethical conduct is questioned, HR managers have traditionally overseen arrangements for the handling of discipline and grievances. For some (Connock and Johns,1995), the mantle of ethical leadership should not just be worn by HR managers alone; the responsibility should also be placed firmly on the shoulders of the whole senior management team and line managers. This is an argument that is very much in keeping wi...

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