Four Emerging Ethical Discussion Points for HR Professionals

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Growing up by the ocean, one of the axioms I frequently heard was that to effectively kill a lobster, you must immerse it in cold water and then incrementally bring it to the boil. The general idea was that the lobster would be quickly rendered unconscious and would therefore die painlessly in the (assumed to be, ethical) process. However it’s a reasonable assumption that this not entirely accurate, and that lobsters do indeed suffer before their demise in this process.

However, this premise appears to have some truth to it when read metaphorically. Gradual change, it is assumed, tends to creep up on those whose environment is changing without their awareness – until the changes become potentially irrevocable. A similar argument has been made for the gradual backsliding around climate change, political freedoms – and even privacy. Ethics, privacy and transparency in HR has been a topic that’s fallen by the wayside for a few years, but of late it’s seen a resurgence thanks to a somewhat fortunate exposure of some risky practices and illegalities around the world. To help get the discussion started, here are some things to consider exploring further if you’re working in HR or a related area.


The principles that govern how we act are our ethical standards. Within this umbrella are a range of morals, rights, rules, conducts, standards and values that allow us to frame our world, and to operate within a society without an entire breakdown of productivity. For HR, there have been established ethical standards and duties for many years. However with the advent of new technologies, ever-increasing levels of data collection and analysis, there is a risk for the misuse of information, either intentional or unintentional. HR has a huge burden that it must take responsibility for – legislating and constructing an ethical compass to navigate many critical issues; data privacy, IT, sensors, remote work, wearables, predictive analytics, social media, and IoT, to name a few. This task is made even more difficult because of a two-fold challenge: the variations between relevant domestic, international and supranational legislation, and the exponential growth in new technologies that often outpace legislative efforts. The responsibility for all professionals and especially for HR people, is to establish an ethical and legal landscape that ensures individual rights are protected, whilst also keeping business goals in mind.

With great data comes great responsibility

For HR, having an enormous scope for workforce personalisation (and the potential workforce) is a significant luxury. The ability to analyse individual employees in detail is surely a benefit to the optimization of the employee, the workplace and HR itself. However it throws up several questions surrounding privacy, the collection of data, and the ethics surrounding data use, storage and accessibility. There is sometimes a gap between the technologies available and the legislated procedures in place – which leads us to the GDPR. Without overstating the point, the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which will be entering legal effect in May 2018, is going to have an enormous impact on the operations of practically all businesses operating within the EU, and those who do business within the EU too. While it will undoubtedly create a number of challenges for HR professionals and all involved with data collection and analysis, it provides HR with a mandate to carefully re-evaluate the practices they undertake. But hey, at least we are talking about these issues, right?


With the advent of social media and ‘new’ media, the transfer of information now takes place instantaneously around the world. This of course has a great net impact on the overall ease of business, and it’s already shown some benefits for HR in terms of recruiting, employer branding, and employee experience in particular. Websites such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor and even social media giants like Facebook and Twitter now afford both individuals and organizations incredible tools for outreach, content creation, business development – and of course, HR. However they also provide public and gated environments that present several potential privacy/security risks, for which we only have to look as far as the Cambridge Analytica fallout to observe. As the wider business ecology begins to take clear shape, HR professionals should be acutely aware of the seemingly irreproachable reach of transparency in 2018, and therefore where their own practices stand.

Humanism and Transhumanism

Now this one’s a little more far-fetched, but you’ll probably have seen this interplay many times over the last few years, especially if you’ve been keeping an eye on robotics and AI. In its most basic definition (and I’m ignoring a lot of detail here), Humanism is concerned with a world view that emphasizes the agency of human beings, with all their flaws, vices, strengths, desires, and nuances. In a sense, HR is integrated closely with this idea though various employee experience practices that aim to broadly enhance human agency. It appears that taking this position would be obvious, as businesses and organizations function almost entirely as a network of humans, working towards a common goal, whilst still encouraging individual agency and control. However, there is an increasing tension emerging between this human-centricity, and a parallel movement towards Transhumanism. The latter essentially aims to transform the human condition with the assistance of emerging technologies. I’m not suggesting these two categories are mutually exclusive – but the combination of the two begs the question; how can both ideas co-exist in the business world?

If the technology exists to change human agency – which it does – HR must be asking several questions; how much agency does can individual give up? Is it even ethically sound to do so? Will technology eat away at efforts to create meaning (or will it enhance it)? We should not doubt the benefits that many technological advancements have for HR as a function and profession, but it’s time to have a reasonable discussion about where we’re heading, and what we’re willing to accept along the way.

For more reading on this topic, I highly recommend checking out People data: How far is too far by Deloitte, the EU GDPR Portal, and the Articles of David Green, a passionate voice for a balanced approach and reasoned discussion on ethics in HR and analytics.

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Follow the HR Congress Blog for more interesting ideas and content from around the world of work!

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