In order to develop the principles of value judgement for HR, we first explored how existing philosophy literature deals with the ethical issues of work (Clark 2015). This review identified a number of ‘lenses’, which do not represent ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ judgements about the relationship between people and organisations but describe possible perspectives one may consider when making ethical choices (see Figure 1).
We then tested the use of these lenses in a series of focus groups and a survey with nearly 10,000 HR practitioners, business leaders and line managers around the world, asking them to decide whether the judgements associated with the lenses were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in their professional opinion. We compared these responses with the extent to which practitioners said they actually applied these lenses in their current practice. The findings provide food for thought around five questions:
Who should HR serve?
A commitment to a two-way relationship between people and the business was evident in the ways survey respondents used the Well-being Lens in their decisions. However, while they believe that workers should be treated as legitimate stakeholders of a business, in actual practice only about half (47%) of practitioners said that they always apply the principle ‘Work should be good for people’ in their day-to-day decisions, with a further 35% suggesting they may compromise this principle under certain circumstances.
Should people be treated as a means to an end?
The survey showed that some organisational priorities – such as cost management and downsizing – make it more difficult for practitioners to find solutions that are ‘good’ both for employees and business owners. Where negative outcomes for people (such as redundancy) are unavoidable, at least seven out of ten practitioners believe that treating people humanely – above their legal responsibility as employers – is the ‘right’ thing to do. However, the Rights Lens is less likely to be applied when making decisions about individuals who are not part of the ‘core’ workforce – for example, temporary staff or workers in a remote office location.
Giving employees an effective voice is one example of treating them as legitimate stakeholders in the employment relationship, consistent with the Democracy Lens. Yet, just under a quarter of practitioners said that the principle ‘People should be able to influence the decisions that affect them’ is one that they always apply in their decisions, with a further quarter suggesting it never applies or that it is ‘nice to have’, even though they believe it is ‘the right thing to do’.
What is fair?
Although markets appear to be a powerful driver in workplace decisions, particularly when it comes to reward, the survey respondents believe that ‘right’ decisions should follow an objective and consistent approach, rather than being shaped by arbitrary contextual forces.
Practitioners were highly likely to indicate that the Merit Lens is the one that should be used in their professional opinion, and the one already used by a large number of decision-makers in current practice. Over half (55%) of decision-makers said the principle ‘People should have equal access to opportunities in line with their ability/merit’ applies in all circumstances when they are making professional judgements.
In contrast, the Fairness Lens is one of the least likely to be applied, both when making decisions about organisational dilemmas and in their own professional practice. Only three in ten practitioners said that the principle ‘For an outcome to be fair, the decision-maker should not leave out the factors deemed important by the person affected by this decision’ always applies in their practice, while 45% thought it could be compromised.
Is long-term or short-term value creation most important?
In each of the scenarios, up to nine in ten practitioners chose the long-term interests of the organisation over short-term gains. However, in their current practice less than a quarter said that long-term gains always justify short-term sacrifices.
How easily are values compromised?
The survey results showed that the Character Lens is one that is likely to be compromised by professionals struggling to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the employees. In current practice, almost half of the respondents (46%) said that the principle ‘Core values cannot be compromised whatever the context’ always applies in their professional practice. A further 37% said it applies but can be compromised, and 11% said it is ‘nice to have, but not imperative’. The most common reasons why people management professionals compromise their principles are ‘current business needs’ and ‘pressure from business leaders’.
In sum, our analysis of the ‘professional opinions’ on the use of various lenses in workplace decisions by HR practitioners, business leaders and line managers paints a picture of an ambition to make more balanced choices about work, but also a gap between that ambition and current practice. The main concern is that while professionals might want to create win–win solutions for people and organisations in a principled way, in some circumstances they either deprioritise certain ethical perspectives or lack the knowledge and/or power to consider those as part of the decision-making process.