Once you accept that we as humans err, your ability to manage yourself in difficult circumstances and to ward off temptation is much better
HR heads should play the role of conscience keeper of the board says K. Ramkumar
There are no perfectly ethical people in the world, there never have been, and never will be. The point I am trying to make here is that I am more comfortable with people like Abraham Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi who say that they are constantly tempted through their lives and are walking on the edge of a sword – sometimes selecting the right path and sometimes falling prey to temptation and selecting the wrong path. An ethical person is someone who when pointed out that he has crossed the line, feels ashamed and corrects himself. If you do it, you are an ethical person.
Ethics and the workplace
Ethics in the context of work has been blown up to such giant proportions that tend to hide misconduct and wrongdoing instead of intervening and correcting it. If we are ashamed of anything, we choose not to admit it. If the organisation accepts that I as Ramkumar may have done a few things good and bad and that I’m not perfect then I don’t need to hide. Instead, if I have to proclaim to be a person who has always done good then I will be worried about my wrong doings coming to light and attempt to hide them and project myself to be holier than thou.
I am not saying that organisations should give people a licence to cheat, but once you accept that we as humans do err then your ability to manage yourself in difficult circumstances and situations and to ward off temptation is much better.
What I called the ‘the smart staircase’ is ubiquitous at the workplace. For example, most people knowingly fudge numbers in a sales review and the bosses know it. Also, there are times, when you blame the other department in the workplace for you not having met your numbers, knowing very well that your results have no correlation with the other department. However, no one challenges; instead such people are considered to be ‘smart’. Others who are watching this imbibe the lesson that the only way to grow in an organisation is to conveniently hide or misrepresent information.
If we promote such behaviour everyday, how can we talk about being ethical? Ethics is not only about not taking bribes. It is much more than that. In fact, that is the actually the first level of ethics. It is not just about money, there are a thousand things that we do at the workplace that relate to ethics.
For example, once we invited Martina Navratilova to take a session in ICICI. After that, she sent me an invite to be at Wimbledon this year in her box along with her. I was in a dilemma. About 99 per cent of the people would have taken the offer, but I didn’t. It was not because I wanted to prove that I am very ethical. I was introduced to Navratilova through ICICI. If I attended the event, I would have been obliged to give business to her. Even if I had given the business based on merit, people could have said I returned her a favour because she hosted me in Wimbledon. These are the kind of dilemmas that organisations face every day.
HR – the conscience keeper?
I believe that the primary role of HR is to be conscious keeper of the company. However, for that you should be prepared to be sacked. In reality most of us are scared individuals who come to work just wanting to keep our jobs even if everyone around us loses theirs. And we do this by saying, “yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”
A good HR person in my mind is the one who is able to sit in the board room and play the role of the conscience keeper of the board and not just talk about policies and processes. Because by training, an HR person can understand human psychology and group dynamics better.
However, the irony is that heads of HR unfortunately have unholy alliances with temping agencies by virtue of their position. Everyone may not be doing this but there are HR and business heads, who have unholy alliances with vendors, and they easily get away with it.
Many organisational policies and procedures also promote unethical behaviour and to which HR is a party because they make the policies. At the time of joining, organisations tend to promise benefits and a few years later we find and an intelligent argument to tell why the person is not eligible for the benefit. Then why have a policy in the first place? If your policy promises that a person is eligible for stock options provided they meet the criteria and the person indeed meets the criteria, s/he should be given what he deserves. Unfortunately, many organisations don’t stand by their promises. There are no organisations that cheat – only leaders cheat. Still, the treatment meted out to organisations is often different than that of individuals.
Another example is the payment of bonuses in organisations. It is quite common for a majority of junior people being rated badly and given poor bonuses whereas the seniors are rated well and given a higher bonus. Do you think that it is ethical? How can you be in a leadership position when bulk of the people in your company are rated badly and paid poor bonus and the top 100 people take the best bonus in the company.
This is what worries me. All of us use the ethics word conveniently especially when giving a public lecture but we do not apply it to our lives. Unethical practices permeate to places that are beyond are imagination and before we realise it becomes too big to handle. We, as human beings, consistently tread the thin line between being ethical and unethical. Rules of ethics and integrity cannot be carved in stone; they are rather drawn in sand and we need to be watchful that they are not washed away by the pressures of everyday living.
As told by K. Ramkumar, Executive Director (HR, Customer Service & Operations), ICICI Bank