The value of ethics in the workplace is increasingly being acknowledged. While this value is often viewed in terms of reducing the risk and associated cost of ethical failure, it should also be recognised in relation to the benefits of an ethical culture. Realising the goal of building and maintaining an ethical culture necessitates wide support within the company, amongst whom HR has a key role to play. HR is able to promote ethics in three primary areas that contribute to an ethical culture, namely, ethical standards, ethical awareness and operational ethics.


The principal purpose of the company's ethical standards is to provide a clear guide for behaviour. They should ideally be documented in the company’s values, a code of conduct and supporting policies, which together constitute a code of ethics. HR is perfectly placed to ensure that this foundation aspect of ethics is up-to-date, reviewed annually and well understood within the organisation and, consequently, to make sure that this is an effective facet of the organisation’s ethics programme.


Ethical awareness is a very effective factor to reduce unethical behaviour. A good example of this is the effect of visible policing, for example, the private security vehicles that patrol some suburbs. Their presence may not result in many (or any) criminals actually being apprehended, but it serves to raise ethical awareness and, in so doing, acts as a deterrent to crime being committed in that area. The same applies in a workplace with high levels of ethical awareness.

High ethical awareness can be achieved by a variety of mechanisms of which the following two are especially impactful:

Assessing, monitoring and reporting on ethical performance are advocated by the Companies Act Social and Ethics Committee and King III – which actions very successfully promote ethical awareness (amongst other benefits). Using a tool such as the Ethics Monitor, a web-based ethics survey, HR is able to manage and promote this process.

Ethics training is another important contributor to building and maintaining ethical awareness. HR should ensure that the training is not a mere "tick-box” compliance exercise undertaken once during employee induction, but that it fulfils a meaningful role to deepen employees’ knowledge and understanding of workplace ethics and to build increased commitment to an ethical approach.


Integrating ethical standards into the company's operations is really important as it influences whether and how ethics is practiced. This has a proportional impact on ethical standards, ethical awareness and an ethical culture, either supporting and building or undermining and eroding them.

Within HR’s domain ethics can be incorporated into a range of practices, systems and procedures, such as: ethics hotlines; ethics helplines; recruitment checks; remuneration and promotion discussions and decisions; performance management systems and evaluation criteria; employee award programmes or employee of the month nominations; and transparency in communications (for example about disciplinary incidents).

Being successful at building an ethical culture brings with it many internal, operational benefits. These include greater trust, more individual accountability and less need for policing, the avoidance of excessive regulation, being able to attract and retain top staff and increased employee engagement and commitment.

Many of these benefits directly support HR's areas of responsibility and therefore represent a good reason why HR should support ethics. However, the greater reason is arguably that HR maximises their value and their sphere of influence by making a meaningful contribution to creating a more ethical workplace for their employees. As it always the case, the extent to which HR makes this difference will rest on their commitment to ethics and the level of their engagement in pursuing an ethical culture.

By Cynthia Schoeman
Posted on BusinessBrief, January 2014