The idea that the HR function should be the conscience of the organisation has been around for a while. It came up in the comments on one of my recent posts and in this post from Neil Morrison last month. It is often cited in discussions about the role of HR and it has some powerful advocates. (It appears that some PR people also think they should be the conscience of the organisation but that’s one for another day.)
I first heard the phrase at a corporate HR conference years ago. The HRD stood up at the beginning and told the assembled HR professionals that the CEO wanted HR to be the conscience of the organisation. Sitting at the back was one of the L&D managers, a plain-speaking Scouser. His response was blunt. (You have to imagine this said in a Derek Hatton accent.)
Why the hell should I be someone else’s conscience? That lets everyone else off the hook. It gives the message that people don’t need to use their own consciences; they can do as they like until HR tells them to stop. We’re telling people they don’t need to worry about behaving ethically because HR will be their conscience for them.
He was spot on. Portraying one part of the organisation as the conscience infantalises everyone else. It gives them tacit permission to misbehave until HR tells them they can’t.
People do things when they are in groups that they would not dream of doing on their own. Corporations, like any other group, create a cover for bad behaviour. Furthermore, the corporation itself, because of the way it is constituted, can magnify this tendency.
There is something about the corporate dynamic that makes people behave differently. The law treats corporations as if they were people but, as Joel Bakan said, if they really were people they would be psychopaths. The legal duties on directors to pursue profit and shareholder value mean that corporations behave in a way that is so selfish it would be regarded as pathological in a real person. In this sense, then, corporations don’t have consciences. Some writers, such as Milton Friedman, have argued that it is simply impossible for them to have any social duty at all.
This can have a strange effect on people when they are in the workplace. Otherwise ethical and reasonable people sometimes do some extraordinary things. The corporate We takes over from the other We, that of family and community. Managers pollute rivers, cut corners, take risks with their own and other people’s lives and, in extreme cases, intimidate and steal from customers, suppliers and employees. All for the sake of a good appraisal rating.
I remember one occasion when I was discussing a forthcoming tribunal case with a manager. The conversation went something like this:
“It’s easy,” he said. “He will say we did X but we can just say we didn’t. We can say he did Y and it’s his word against ours.”
“But we did do X.” I replied.
“Yes but we can say we didn’t. Who’s going to know?”
“Hang on a minute,” I said. “Are you suggesting that we perjure ourselves in court? Are you really prepared to commit a criminal offence to get the company off the hook?”
The sad thing is that, in that moment, he was. The manager concerned was a decent chap who had just got carried away with his corporate role – to the point that he was thinking about making himself a criminal for the sake of the company. Such is the effect that the corporate environment can have on some people’s behaviour.
But corporations are made up of lots of different people and those at the top of organisations are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters just like everyone else. Even the most money-grabbing and selfish among them have a vested interest in not screwing up the environment for the generations to come. As Andrew Witty, GlaxoSmithKline’s enlightened CEO says, corporations are not detached from society, they are part of it.
Individual consciences, along with regulation and the threat of punishment, are what put the brakes on the potentially psychopathic behaviour of corporations. Hundreds of small decisions, in which people re-interpret the drive for shareholder value in the context of the other aspects of their lives, mitigate the ferociousness of the large profit-hungry business. In making these decisons, people exercise their own consciences.
As my Evertonian colleague said, suggesting that the collective conscience of the organisation is the responsibility of the HR function absolves everyone else of the duty to use their own. If we want organisations to behave less badly, all the people in them must act according to their own consciences. Conscience is everyone’s responsibility. It’s much too important to be left to HR.
In the end, my friend didn’t lie in court. He listened to his conscience and realised that he was a human being as well as a company executive. Perhaps my role had been simply to help him remember that.