Ethics, branding top issues of interest for HR

HR Leaders Forum participants see need for truth telling
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/10/2007

The HR profession is changing, due in part to the growth of HR technology and HR outsourcing, and a shift in focus is taking place. Those are themes that emerged from an HR leader’s forum, sponsored by

Canadian HR Reporter

and Carswellbusiness, held last month in Toronto.

Among two HR roles growing in importance are those of keeping the conscience of a company and marketing the work experience to jobseekers and employees. And these areas of concern — branding and ethics — are linked in more ways than one.

Employer branding, forum participants said, had to reflect a realistic picture of what the job entailed and what the workplace culture required. Ethics — at least HR’s ownership of it — was also about telling the truth and holding up a mirror to the organization, from performance management through succession planning to executive compensation.

As Linda Padfield, director of organizational development at Toronto-based mining company Inco, described it, a big part of HR’s role in ethics is to foster a culture in which “people know they can tell the truth and the consequences will be just and fair.”

Participants were very interested in the idea of branding the working experience along the needs of different segments of the population. One of the panellists, Bonnie Holbrook, corporate director, human resources at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, said this is the practice in recruitment advertising at the hotel company. Internal focus groups indicated that professionals were attracted to a message emphasizing the company’s growth and diversity, while front-line service employees were attracted to a message emphasizing their role in delivering quality service.

The need to target different segments of the population goes beyond distinguishing core from non-core employees or unionized from non-unionized employees, as HR has traditionally practised this concept, said Brian Orr, vice-president of HR at London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont.

“I think one of the trends we haven’t recognized is looking at your workforce and saying what are the varying needs, requirements, perspectives and then tailoring the HR programs to target those respective segments,” said Orr. “I think it’s a huge leverage point…it could be driven by a whole lot of things: education levels, attitudes and perspectives.”

Participants also examined the positive and negative consequences of branding the work experience. Panellist Monica Belcourt, director of the graduate human resources management program at York University in Toronto, said she recently read about companies that said they did not want to be employers of choice.

“‘It causes us problems. Everybody wants to come work for us, so it takes us more time to screen and select, and once they’re here they don’t want to leave because we’ve got the best daycare and flex time,’” Belcourt said, paraphrasing the argument against being an employer of choice.

What smart companies are saying is they want to be the employer of choice for employees of their choice, she said. They use employer branding so candidates can screen themselves out.

Orr recounted hearing from past winners of employer awards in the United States that are now walking away from those awards.

“What they’re saying is it only makes sense if the standards of the award line up with the culture you want your organization to have,” said Orr. “Because going after one of these, where you have misalignment, will actually make it worse. You may get the award and lose.”

A number of participants took up the theme that sometimes HR’s motivation for going through such an exercise is to gain validation. Such motivation isn’t wholly incomprehensible, said Ted Clarke, a principal at HR consulting firm J. Edward Clarke & Associates in Peterborough, Ont.

“Being in HR is like working for the government,” he said. “There are few opportunities for you to be thanked for what you do.”

On the positive side, some participants saw the pursuit of such awards as a way to drive organizational development. Others noted that by getting on a top employers list, the employer wins validation not so much for its HR department as for the practices of its managers and senior leaders.

Some of the discussion picked up on HR’s influence on ethics which, as Padfield of Inco outlined, are underpinned by five key concerns. These are: fair treatment, special considerations — a term referring to the need to make exceptions and to accommodate for individual circumstances — employee well-being, respect for the law and honest communication.

Though some noted the futility of trying to teach someone ethics, others said HR’s role in confronting ethical issues is all the more crucial.

Hugh Secord, author of

Best Practices: Communications Issues in Human Resources Management

, published by Carswellbusiness, said that’s because HR practitioners are “exposed to more ethical issues than any other profession.”

A few others pointed to examples of violations of labour standards, untruthful communications with employees and bad-faith dealing with unions to underscore a need for HR practitioners to reflect on the ethical requirement of their jobs.

“But we need to watch out for the smug satisfaction that comes from being a watchdog,” said Padfield. “We need to be on the court not sitting on the stands commenting.”

The participants also heard about the growing capacity to deliver the kinds of metrics that matter — not measures of HR efficiencies but measures of the business impact of particular HR initiatives. Stephanie Speal, senior director of employee research at Toronto-based CIBC, told participants that, to find out the level of compliance with the bank’s performance management system, she’s still doing surveys to find out how many employees have completed a scorecard throughout the organization.

“But there are systems out there that are all automated, and HR can go in and with a switch find out how many have a scorecard in place. So automation is really going to facilitate the gathering of information,” said Speal.

At that point, “HR’s role won’t be to execute this measurement but to find out: what’s the value of this evaluation? What does it mean that 50 per cent have a scorecard? What’s the difference in business impact?”

At CIBC, in particular, external regulators have started to take an interest in such internal issues as culture.

“The interesting thing is when other people look at information it changes the importance that people internally attribute to that information,” said Speal. “If we know that external regulators are interested in how many employees have a scorecard, all of a sudden business leaders are paying more attention to that as well."

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