Ethical issues in the management of human resources
This introduction provides an overview of the articles appearing in this special issue. We
attempt to synthesize the issues raised and addressed into a general framework, by
summarizing authors arguments about causes and consequences of ethical issues in the
management of human resources.
The management of human resources (HR) in organizations raises many complex ethical
issues. For example, the low unemployment rate in many markets in the US has led many
employers to provide additional employee benefits at considerable cost; Marriott International
offers 24 h on-call social workers to help with personal problems, and Mirage Hotels pays a
substantial portion of day care costs (Grimsley, 1997). But to what extent do employers have
an ethical obligation to support employees in balancing work and life demands? Where labor
markets are flush with qualified workers, is this obligation lessened, since prospective and
current employees may be more willing to forego personal time in order to keep a job?
As another example, what is the best approach to the design of training programs intended
to enhance the ethical decision-making and behavior of employees (Cropanzano & Byrne,
2001; OLeary-Kelly & Bowes-Sperry, 2001)? Can and should training focus on fostering the
enhancement of moral reasoning? Or do some employees change behavior only when they
understand the legal or other adverse consequences of not doing so? Organizations spend
billions of dollars on training, with varying success (e.g., Morrow, Jarrett, & Rupinski, 1997);
thus the consequences of training program design have implications not only for enhancing
the ethical behavior of organizations and their members, but also for profitability and
Resolution of these questions creates unique problems and opportunities for organizations.
For example, the organizations process of downsizing in order to become more productive
may reduce organizational commitment among survivors, thereby further reducing organiza-
tional productivity (Buckley et al., 2001). Paradoxically, the management of HR has in this
case reduced performance, not enhanced it.
Thus, improving the identification of and resolution of ethical issues can benefit
organizations, their HR managers, and line managers who engage in HR activities such as
recruitment, selection, coaching, training, performance appraisal, and merit pay increases.
This process can be informed by a review of existing research pertinent to these ethical issues
and the further development of theory to guide future research. The contributors to this
volume have thus identified some difficult ethical issues and proposed means for addressing
these issues. Thus, the purpose of this essay is to provide an overview and synthesis of the
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Human Resource Management Review
11 (2001) 19
contributions to this volume. We propose a general framework by which ethical considera-
tions in HR practices and outcomes can be identified.
The papers in this volume address a wide variety of issues. Readers may see some conflicts
among authors perspectives and approaches, which illustrates the complexity of the ethical
problems raised in HR. For example, some authors propose that selecting people who adhere
to firms or cultures ethical values may reduce sexual harassment or other wrongful behavior
(OLeary-Kelly & Bowes-Sperry, 2001), but from other authors perspectives, selection based
on values may also reduce desired cultural diversity (Buckley et al., 2001). As another
example, some authors call for greater consideration of procedures and in some cases more
consistency (Buckley et al., 2001), while others suggest that in many organizations, this has
gone too far (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001). We will leave it to readers to form their own
conclusions but also to note where conflicts still exist because of an empirical void,
requiring future research to resolve important issues. Our contributors summarized some of
what is known about ethical practice, but they intended also to provoke more thought and
stimulate more research to help resolve issues. Thus, it is our hope that this essay and the
other papers in this volume will stimulate both further research and more ethical HR practices
1. Why ethical problems arise in HR management
Ethical questions arise in every type of traditional HR management activity. In some cases,
these involve questions of what constitutes wrongdoing, why it occurs, and appropriate
responses to it. In other cases, these may involve questions of choosing between two or more
courses of action that each can be considered right in some ways (Badaracco, 1997).
We focus on unethical behavior, which encompasses behavior deviant from societal
standards, rather than exclusively upon behavior that is seen as deviant from the perspective
of others in the organization within which one is operating (Miceli & Near, 1997). Deviant
behavior by societal standards has been widely studied by sociologists since the 1950s
(Merton, 1957). In contrast, workplace or employee deviance is voluntary behavior that
violates significant organizational norms and in so doing threatens the well-being of an
organization, its members or both (Robinson & Bennett, 1995, p. 556). Robinson and
Bennett distinguished (workplace) deviant behavior from (un)ethical behavior, because in the
latter the employee relies on societal rather than organizational standards to define wrong-
doing (Robinson & Bennett, 1995). Therefore, insofar as societal and organization norms
may conflict, unethical behavior is not always deviant from the organizations perspective.
For example, Robinson and Bennett (1995, pp. 556557) noted that dumping toxic waste in
a river is not deviant if it conforms with the policies of ones organization. However, most
people would probably agree that this act is unethical. Conversely, reporting this dumping to
authorities may be an ethical act, but it would also be a deviant act in this particular example
if it violated organizational norms.
Researchers on unethical behavior (as defined by societal standards) have suggested three
classic reasons why wrongdoing occurs: (a) the norms for what behavior constitutes
wrongdoing are unclear, (b) an opportunity arises for the perpetrator to commit wrongdoing,
Editorial / Human Resource Management Review 11 (2001) 192
(c) pressures, whether real or perceived, force the perpetrator to engage in wrongdoing.
Studies of corporate wrongdoing, for example, have concluded that all three variables may
explain corporate wrongdoing (Baucus & Baucus, 1997; Baucus & Near, 1991). In addition,
personal or socialpsychological variables (e.g., likelihood to sexually harass, Pryor, Lavite,
& Stroller, 1993; moral judgment development, Rest, 1979) play important roles with respect
to certain actions (Miceli & Near, 1992).
Likewise, in studies of organizational wrongdoing that arises in the context of HRM, we
see evidence of unclear norms, opportunity for wrongdoing and pressure for wrongdoing
(Miceli & Near, 1992). Authors in this issue have considered possibilities of wrongdoing in
selection (Buckley et al., 2001; Weaver & Trevino, 2001); and compensation and reward
systems (Buckley et al., 2001; Wells & Schminke, 2001). They have also investigated
downsizing decisions (Buckley et al., 2001); training and development (Weaver & Trevino,
2001; Wells & Schminke, 2001); and the day-to-day work routines and interactions among
people within the organization (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001).
Although these activities are treated separately in these articles to enable focus and depth,
ideally, all HR activities should be viewed as part of a system (Gerhart, Trevor, & Graham,
1996). For example, as shown in prior research (e.g., Rynes & Rosen, 1995), training and
development will have temporary effects if not accompanied and supported by ongoing
modeling, support, and reinforcement (Wells & Schminke, 2001, p. 147).
In all of these HR activities, the possibility of unethical actions increases when the
manager or employee is not sure what stance is an ethical one (because normative standards
are unclear), when he or she has a clear opportunity to engage in unethical actions, and when
she or he experiences pressure to behave unethically. For example, an HR manager might not
be sure whether a particular selection tool constitutes a fair and appropriate test. Or HR
managers might see the selection process as an opportunity to select employees who hold
values similar to their own but contrary to values of the organization, standards of ethical
conduct, or the law. Finally, their CEOs may force them to use unethical selection methods or
These possibilities are depicted graphically in Fig. 1, along with a broad classification of
articles appearing in this issue (identified by authors names). Several of the articles cut across
several categories in this figure, but to simplify the classification, we attempted to judge the
primary focus of the article in terms of our classification and to place it in only one cell.
Further, Fig. 1 deals only with organizational causes of ethical behavior. As noted earlier and
by a number of the authors in their articles (OLeary-Kelly & Bowes-Sperry, 2001), personal
variables and person-by-situation interactions are also hypothesized (and in some prior
research, shown) to be important. Such individual differences are particularly important in the
selection function, obviously.
These articles describe opportunities for wrongdoing and/or pressures to commit wrong-
doing that seem to be endemic to organizations. Further, the authors describe the consequences
of ambiguous situations or norms against wrongdoing. For example, individuals who do not
recognize their decision or situation as involving a moral issue are less likely to engage ethics
schemata and to behave in ethical ways (OLeary-Kelly & Bowes-Sperry, 2001, p. 76).
In short, the norms must be known before unethical actions can be recognized. In role
episodes where role conflict, role ambiguity, and role multiplicity create confusion for HR
Editorial / Human Resource Management Review 11 (2001) 19 3
professionals, the standards for ethical action may be ambiguous (Wooten, this issue).
Further, although policies may have been implemented to increase efficiency or promote
fairness (e.g., in treating similar situations consistently), for many reasons they can be
overdeveloped to the point of undermining these intentions (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001).
Ironically, policies meant to protect the employee may have the unintended consequence of
providing the opportunity for wrongdoing or pressure to engage in wrongdoing.
In another article, these issues are placed in a cross-cultural and international context
(Grossman & Schoenfeldt, 2001), particularly for multinational organizations. Drawing from
the work of Hofstede (1980, 1991) and Hofstede and Bond (1988), the authors develop the
notion of ethical distance between the parent organizations ethical values and those of the
host nation. They propose that ethical distance interacts with the extent to which international
HR management activities are ethnocentric, polycentric, or regiocentric to influence the
organizations performance and other variables.
We begin by addressing some general definitional and taxonomic issues. More specific
issues are addressed by each article.
2. The consequences of ethical problems in HR management
All of the articles here examine the consequence of ethical problems in HR management,
in some form. Where such ethical issues arise, their consequences are diverse. Among those
negative consequences noted by authors in this issue are individual-level (employee)
responses, group or team effects, and organizational-level effects.
Fig. 1. A classification of articles appearing in this special issue.
Editorial / Human Resource Management Review 11 (2001) 194
2.1. Individual effects
Employees may react negatively to ethical problems through their attitudes and
behaviors. Some attitudinal reactions include increased disillusionment (Buckley et al.,
2001), reduced organizational commitment (Buckley et al., 2001), and poor acceptance of
ethical standards (Weaver & Trevino, 2001). Behavioral responses could include workplace
violence (Buckley et al., 2001), external whistle-blowing rather than use of internal channels
to report wrongdoing (Weaver & Trevino, 2001), low levels of Organization Citizenship
Behaviors (OCBs) (Weaver & Trevino, 2001), a dysfunctionally high number of grievances
(Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001), increased propensity to unionize (Cropanzano & Byrne,
2001), underutilization of targets of harassment (OLeary-Kelly & Bowes-Sperry, 2001),
and poor use of time on the job, leading to lower overall productivity (Cropanzano &
2.2. Group effects
Negative consequences of unethical actions can be seen when group members sacrifice the
good of the group to protect the rights of one individual (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001). An
example of this situation might be where one group member engages in unethical behavior
(e.g., reporting inflated work expenses) and other members collude to hide the unethical
behavior from authorities, because of loyalty to the group (Miceli & Near, 1992).
2.3. Organization effects
Effects at the organization level tend to be more amorphous and difficult to specify (or
quantify). For example, if the organization selects only members with similar ethical views,
decreased cultural diversity may result (Buckley et al., 2001). If managers engage in
behavior perceived to be unethical, lower trust among employees may result (Cropanzano
& Byrne, 2001). The organization may ignore its accountability to society at large (Buckley
et al., 2001), be viewed as unacceptable by society at large (Grossman & Schoenfedlt,
2001), experience decreased firm valuation (Buckley et al., 2001), or lowered firm success
(defined as effectiveness or profitability) which may reduce long-term organizational
survival (Cropanzano & Byrne, 2001; Grossman & Schoenfeldt, 2001). All of these
consequences tend to be interrelated and often one ethical lapse can cause several of them
to occur simultaneously.
3. Recommendations for future research and practice
Authors in this issue have offered interesting propositions for future empirical testing.
Since the propositions for research are and should remain specific to the topics, we wont
attempt to integrate them here. However, there are some common themes across the
suggestions for practitioners.
Editorial / Human Resource Management Review 11 (2001) 19 5
Ideally, best practices, or recommended solutions, should be derived from research and
analyses of problems, rather than from a polling of...