Should HR be the conscience of the organisation?

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.

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5 Responses to Should HR be the conscience of the organisation?

  1. irenicon says:

    This notion of HR as conscience can be particularly tricky when HR are supposed to be investigating bullying of harassment. If they know full well it is taking place and try to stop it, they run the risk of being fired (I know several HR people who have been) and if they do nothing they are complicit.

    The reality is even if HR were to act as some kind of conscience it would only give them a nervous breakdown. HR people don’t often have the power to right wrongs or slay dragons, they are more in the burying the victims business when it gets right down to it. They send flowers to the funeral.

    This is not because they are bad people but because their job and the organisation is designed with other purposes in mind.

  2. David Goddin says:

    Rick – Well and simply put but it’s shocking how many people don’t get it. I think it was @Dougshaw1 who talked a while back about how many people leave their morals/ethics at the security desk when they arrive at work and collect them on the way home to their human families.

    I recently wrote on Ethics ( and what I didn’t include was the example you’ve raised where HR are involved in a criminal act or unethical in a tribunal or dismissal even. At the time I didn’t want to pass judgement whilst encouraging a conversation on ethics.

    However, my observation is that any CIPD member involved in such acts apparently face some far reaching consequences if they don’t uphold their Code of Professional Conduct ( Whether it has any teeth or not is another debate but I wonder how HR as an industry would behave differently if this Code of Professional Conduct was always in the forefront of their minds?

  3. Jez says:

    As PR practitioner I’m often struck by similarities with HR when I read this blog. Of course there are overlaps of functional responsibility, especially during organisational change, but I think it’s something a bit more fundamental that this post highlights. Managing an organisation’s reputation (which is what I do) is not just the job of the communication department; it is not an “add-on” to the business that is the responsibility of a particular group of specialists – it is the responsibility of every employee. Employee communication is not just the role of the internal comms department, it is a fundamental element of management. All too often I see managers abdicating their responsibility on the grounds that communication is the job of my department (or blaming communication when their own cock-ups come to light).

    Similarly with HR. When I worked for a (very well-known) insurance company I shocked my HR manager when I told her that I would tell one of my team that I was firing her. “Nobody’s ever done that before – they always ask us to do it” was her response. Disciplining staff is a fundamental part of being a manager, yet all too often I see the “difficult” bits of people management being handed to HR by line managers.

    Being the conscience of an organisation is not an add-on that should be owned by one department. It is a fundamental part of management. Allocating it to a specific function devalues it and means it’s “someone else’s responsibility”. That’s really dangerous.

  4. Michal says:

    transferring the responsibility from one unit to another (doesn’t matter which one – HR, PR etc) instead of owning it means the dangerous things are happening right now for the organization and people working for such an organization. At the same time – who bothers but for HR?

  5. Pingback: Can HR Help Companies See “The Forest for the Trees” | HR Perspectives

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