The British tabloid News of the World generated headlines recently after its reporters were found to have routinely hacked into the cell phones of celebrities and murder victims. News Corporation, which owned the newspaper, shut it down after other news organizations found a pattern of wrong-doing among journalists and an out-of-control, anything-goes corporate culture. But Rupert Murdoch, CEO of the newspaper’s parent company, refused to take responsibility, saying he had been misled by subordinates.

The scandal not only raised questions about journalists’ tactics, privacy and the security of cell phones, but also corporate ethics. Specifically, what part of an organization is responsible for ensuring that the rules are being followed? Does the buck stop with senior executives? Or with another group in the corporate hierarchy?

Business ethicist Roger Steare places this responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the human resources department. The News of the World incident and other scandals elsewhere could have been avoided, he argues, if HR departments had been doing their job and had been on the lookout for unethical behavior within their organization.

Professor Steare believes that HR departments are “delinquents when it comes to ethics,” and company leaders are paying a price because of it. Of course, senior management should be held accountable for damage caused by their companies. But that is after the damage has been done. Steare argues that HR professionals should monitor for unethical behavior and raise red flags with company leaders before a problem runs out of control.

In that sense, HR plays an important check-and-balance within the corporate hierarchy. Just as the president or prime minister is held in check by the congress or parliament, the behaviors of employees at a company are held in check by the HR department.

But HR shouldn’t only be the hall monitor. Its responsibilities include proactively explaining and enforcing acceptable corporate behavior. That includes sponsoring training sessions for employees and managers, putting corporate policies in writing, and communicating regularly with senior management and the rank-and-file about issues that crop up.

Should HR have known what was happening at News of the World? Steare believes so. The stakes are very high in this environment. Stories about corporate problems spread around the world like wildfire, thanks to social networks and other Internet-based communications. If HR doesn’t step up to the plate and take on this responsibility, who will? If HR doesn’t, there surely will be more senior executives facing government inquiries (and possibly even foam pies). Worse, companies will lose credibility – their most important asset.

The News of the World scandal destroyed one of Britain’s best known newspapers and still threatens the future of one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates. How much blame do you put on the shoulders of the HR department?

Reference
Phone Hacking Scandal ‘Highlights Need for HR Ethics’
http://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/pm/articles/2011/07/phone-hacking-scandal-highlights-need-for-hr-ethics.htm

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