Ethical And Legal Considerations For HR Professionals

Questions about workplace ethics have no single or simple answer, as any answers will depend upon situation specifics. Even issues that seem relatively straight forward can present numerous hidden traps, both legal and ethical, to the people trying to resolve them.

To make things even more complicated, HR practitioners have well-defined professional responsibilities but simultaneously have responsibilities as private citizens, work colleagues, and maybe as a friend. When an ethics question arises, HR professionals need to understand exactly what role they are playing. As a representative of the company, you have one set of responsibilities; as a concerned private citizen, you have another. Situations are easier to navigate when these two converge, but that’s not always the case.

According to Laura Sack, a New York City-based partner and co-chair of the East Coast employment practice of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, “it’s a very tough topic” in an HR professional’s world. These situations are not always black or white, but the questions you face may still have legal implications.

Make Boundaries Clear

The stakes involved in ethical questions are often high, if not for the company, then for the employees and managers involved. For instance, what would an HR professional generally do when he promises to hold something in confidence but that pledge proves impossible to keep? John Boyce, vice president in charge of human resources for enhanced network provider Vail Systems Inc. in Deer field, faced that conundrum at his previous employment while training new workers at a refinery. He initially told them he would keep any safety violations they witnessed before their next training session in confidence so they could discuss them openly. Expecting to hear stories of minor issues, such as goggles not being worn at work, he was rather stunned to hear two workers describe how they were instructed to vent poisonous gas into the air—a clear violation of company policy and safety procedures that could have killed them. Taking the two men aside, he told them that he had no idea of how their lives had been put into jeopardy and that despite the earlier assurance of confidentiality, he was left with no choice under the circumstances than to report the incident. When the employees objected, an apologetic Boyce responded, “You wouldn’t want to work at a place where these things are not reported.” Although he was able to transfer one of the employees to another department, the second had to remain with his original team, which he described a year later as “going through hell.”

The lesson he learned was that HR professionals have to set boundaries around what “confidentiality” means. While he had promised confidentiality to the employees he was training, keeping that promise would have resulted in potentially putting the lives of the affected employees in harm’s way, unbeknownst to the management.

Next Course of Action

Many common situations that confront HR professionals may seem like ethical dilemmas but are actually professional judgment calls. For example, if an HR staff member suspects an employee is the victim of domestic violence, are they then obligated to call the police?

What if an employee asks to forgo a pay increase because accepting it would mean enduring a cut in social services benefits?

What if another is using a parking placard intended for people with disabilities and bragging to coworkers that it actually belongs to her brother-in-law and she only borrowed it for her own convenience?

In such an instance, does HR have an obligation to look into such matters?

The answer varies; HR must first determine whether the issue involves the employer or not, and then they must decide if it is appropriate or necessary to get involved.

To do that, the following issues have to be critically examined:

  • To my knowledge, is there a potential legal issue for the company at stake?
  • Is someone safe or are they in jeopardy?
  • Does this conflict with the company’s culture, mission, or policies or what we expect of our employees?

If one answers in the affirmative to the aforementioned questions, then an action on the issue should be imminent. What exactly should that action be? The above examples cannot be classified as ethical issues for HR but rather as judgment calls for HR to make. Another school of thought sees the issue as not being that simple, however; “ethical” versus “legal” is a false dichotomy, as many issues that have a legal twist also border on ethics concerns. In that case, the point of contention is whether or not the legal issue is sufficiently clear and pressing as to make an ethical decision seem irrelevant. For example, Mac Donald said, “Where I live, there is a legal duty to report suspected child abuse. If an HR professional comes to suspect that the legal duty is sufficiently strong, then no one should need to engage in nuanced ethical reasoning. If you are not sure whether there are legal issues, you need to consult a lawyer and bear in mind that the areas that first seem gray often are better understood when they are clarified and you learn more about them.”

Many ethical dilemmas depend on a precision of fact. This is where anxiety sets in when an HR practitioner hears that an employee is somehow involved in a domestic violence situation, for example.

From the outset, it is abundantly apparent that there is a thin line between ethics and legality. HR practitioners must be sensitive to the boundary between the two in order not to dent the image of the organization while remaining in good standing with the laws governing their jurisdiction and industry.


Phidelia Johnson is a global Human Resources Practitioner with eighteen years of leadership success. With a focus on streamlining Human Resources administration, she’s well-equipped to find the right solution to a myriad of concerns. Her experience as a commercial business leader gives her a unique ability to advocate for both the employer and the employee.
In her down time, Phidelia is a master of her kitchen, creating wonderful dishes filled with passion and flavor. If she’s not cooking delicious food, she’s stretched out with a good book. She hopes to use her experience to help others, guide company leaders to best practices, and help build better professionals and stronger organizations.

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