Invisible. That's how Claremont Graduate School's human resources and leadership expert Robert Smedley describes ethical issues that HR professionals often face. Although ethical violations committed by executives make headlines, the most common workplace violations involve unequal treatment of employees. The HR manager champions fairness by policing performance evaluations, candidate selection, compensation and workplace safety. Doing what's right can find him opposing employees and superiors and puts his reputation and job on the line.

Performance Reviews

The integrity of any performance evaluation process relies on fairness. When supervisors fail to make objective, honest appraisals, both employees and the organization lose. HR has an obligation to steer supervisors away from any tendencies to be overly generous in critiques or to couch negative evaluations that avoid unpleasantness. Lack of honest feedback deceives employees. HR can influence an ethical review climate by designing a performance evaluation system that stresses objectivity and by training managers on correct procedures and ethical practices.

Recruitment and Hiring

Recruitment and hiring involve ethical choices between personal preferences and company needs. Friends of and recommendations from insiders do not necessarily identify the best candidates. Hiring managers who make discriminatory selections jeopardize equal opportunity. Candidates who misrepresent their expertise present a post-hire, keep-or-dismiss dilemma in tight labor markets. Recruiting from competitors, customers and suppliers can expose the organization to conflict of interest and favoritism that could be construed as a damaging unethical practice. HR protects the organization in these situations by accurately presenting positions and encouraging focus on candidate ability and merits.


Despite written policies on overtime and paid time off, HR confronts fairness issues that risk legal consequences. Manipulating time entries, even with an employee's consent, to protect the payroll budget from overtime charges violates the Fair Labor Standards Act. A supervisor who misinterprets holiday or vacation entitlement opens the door to legal action by disgruntled workers. Enforcing equitable bonus eligibility criteria to avoid favoritism may be politically trying for the HR professional, as may supporting executive compensation plans perceived by employees to be too generous. Another ethical issue with compensation requires HR to respect the confidentiality of employee salaries.

Workplace Safety

Employers have an obligation to offer a safe working environment. Asking employees to perform their duties without proper safety equipment or training disregards that obligation. Employees who fail to follow prescribed safety rules of conduct jeopardize themselves and their employer's reputation. In addition to monitoring adherence to safety policies, training requirements and procedures, HR must take precautions to avoid what the courts deem a "negative hire" through pre-employment background checks. These investigations can reveal behavioral red flags and avert future workplace violence incidents; however, they introduce another layer of ethical decisions. HR must obtain consent, choose a reliable provider and interpret the finding impartially in its attempt to promote worker security.