What role should HR play in communicating ethical values?

Article Index

Just as you’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t in favour of motherhood and apple pie, so we can generally all agree that we are in favour of business ethics, but as the continuing media stories of unethical business practices show, messages about ethical business practice seem to be failing to permeate.

The results of EY’s 2015 Europe, Middle East, India and Africa Fraud Survey show that while nearly half of UK survey respondents said regulation in their sector had increased, only 15% said this had resulted in an improvement in corporate ethics. Less than a third of UK respondents rated their own company’s ethical standards as ‘very good’, showing the disconnect between regulation and business behaviour. 

If regulation doesn’t work, how do you create and maintain a strong ethical culture? 

Core ethical values need to be identified and integrated into everything the organisation does – from external processes such as buying, selling, marketing and outsourcing, to internal processes such as governance, recruiting, induction, performance management, promotion and discipline. From the first interview to their last day of work, employees should feel that the company’s core values form the basis for every decision the organisation makes. This is where HR’s role is so important.

HR professionals have a central role in supporting a workplace culture where ‘doing the right thing’ is encouraged. Because they are the main point of contact for all staff within an organisation they have unique access to staff throughout their career, from induction training to exit interviews.

Communicating ethical values is an important part of an employee engagement strategy, which is an essential ingredient for organisational success and a keystone of HR’s role. Talking internally about values and ethics will also enhance employer brand for employees. The CIPD defines employer brand as: ‘a set of attributes and qualities, often intangible, that makes an organisation distinctive, promises a particular kind of employment experience, and appeals to those people who will thrive and perform best in its culture’. 

Communicating an organisation’s values indicates a long-term strategic commitment to building and maintaining an ethical culture. Where there has been an ethical lapse or scandal, communications can help rebuild internal trust by revitalising the commitment to behaving ethically. Where different cultures have merged in an acquisition, for example, internal communications of ethical values can help develop cohesion, to get the constituent parts behind ‘doing the right thing’ together. Global companies will find this approach helpful as it supports the task of uniting different cultures within the one corporation behind one set of values. 

Communicating ethics can help motivate, build trust, create shared identity and spur engagement; it provides a way for individuals to express emotions, share hopes and ambitions and celebrate and remember accomplishments. It is the basis for individuals and groups to make sense of their organisation - what it is and what it means by ‘doing business ethically’.

Company culture develops from the stories we tell each other. Stories define who we are, what we do, and why and how we do it. Whether those stories create an ethical narrative is another matter. Sometimes stories from the top (do as I say, not as I do); or those told by team leaders (whatever it takes); or from colleagues (everybody’s doing it) can lead to a very different culture from that espoused by the company’s stated core values. Unethical behaviour may be so ingrained into a company’s culture as to be considered ‘the way business is done around here’, and so may not be considered unethical at all.

Communication is a two-way process; it requires listening as well as speaking. That is why a crucial element of an effective ethics communication strategy is understanding the employee audience.

HR professionals are ideally placed to identify what cultural and ethical issues are affecting employees - from appraisals and exit interviews, to staff surveys and pulse surveys. Because of their contact with employees at all levels, HR understands what the ethical ‘temperature’ is within an organisation. They hear the stories (ethical or otherwise) which people tell each other, and whether messages about ethical values are getting through.

HR is responsible for key systems and processes which can underpin effective delivery of messages the organisation wishes to convey about ethics. Through HR, ethics can be given credibility and aligned with how businesses run. 

Creating a healthy culture that influences employee actions, decision making and behaviour takes time and requires awareness, sensitivity, patience, resources and cross-functional working. HR – with their close contact with the company’s key asset – its employees – have a crucial role to play in communicating both what ‘doing business ethically’ means for the business, and how it can be achieved.

Communicating Ethical Values Internally: an IBE Good Practice Guide is available from the IBE website.



# Anthony PaperWriter 2015-05-29 19:58
As I was reading the article, I kept on thinking about how the corporate culture forms values of the people in the company. Common values are, in my opinion, the core of successfull structures and teams - uless everyone is on the same page and the priorities and goals of the organisation falls under same priorities and goals of its employees, the project is successful.

I fully agree that the values should be clearly communicated by the organisation to its employees. However, I do not see this coming to action in the majority of the organisations operating today. Reshaping the perception of HR, I think, I a big challenge in teaching organisations to be transparent about their core values.

Add comment

Security code

Forgotten your password?

I'd like to subscribe
Subscribers only - te law will answer your employment law queries. Find out more about our email support

Now there's more ways to stay in touch

Join Us on Linked in Become our Fan on Facebook Follow us on Twitter