Professional ethics: what if the ice breaks?

I’m going to ask you to think about the reality of professional ethics in a challenging business environment and highlight an uncomfortable but real decision we will all as employers need to make at some point if we are acting ethically.

I’ve been a professional recruiter for 17 years, so I’ve dealt with a lot of companies over that time and I gotten to see how each company operates in a number of areas. How the leadership undertakes decisions at various points in the lifecycle of a business including recruiting, retaining staff, strategy & planning etc. Through this experience I have witnessed that professional ethics come into play at all the most critical times for a business even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

For example:

  • Hiring and firing
  • Employee development, e.g. promotion
  • Winning new business
  • Credit control in a tough financial landscape
  • Strategy and planning.

At all these points there will be differing views and opinions on the right way forward for a business and therefore potential conflict which will be influenced by the ethics of the business. If we are interested in operating ethically and successfully, we must accept that ethical decisions come with this conflict.

For this article I want to focus on the recruitment and retention stage that all businesses go through and I want to start with an example of an approach to this that I heard recently from Sir Ranulph Fiennes.He has spent decades hiring people to take on challenging adventures in harsh and dangerous conditions so he knows selection is key. He talks about choosing people based on their key motivation: if they have a single key motivator they are more likely to succeed in their goals which should align with the mission they, and you, are on together. This also works in a traditional business environment as people’s motivators should align with, support or compliment your businesses professional ethics. However, when a mistake is made in selection Sir Ran fires people immediately! For him having the right people in a team could be a literal matter of life or death on an arctic expedition across the ice hence the immediacy of his actions to protect the rest of the team. It is ethical to protect the team and the business by firing people that do not fit with your mission and your professional ethics.

The road to ethical hiring and firing

Organisations often come to reflect their leadership and the values of that leadership but a business is not an individual so the ethics of a business will be born from every employee and have wide reaching implications. Therefore to have an ethical business you will need to agree as a whole what your ethics are and then only recruit and retain those people that can demonstrate those values. Otherwise it’s time to take the Fiennes approach or to put it another popular way hire slow and fire fast.

This might not feel or sound very ethical. Does it feel right to be discussing firing people at the moment you’re trying to be more ethical as a business and as an employer? It makes it harder to commit to a set of guidelines or a charter when you start to think about this side of the equation because your guidelines must allow for this uncomfortable scenario. Our professional ethics mean we must accept that taking a stand means some people will disagree with what we stand for as a business.

I’m not advocating no second chances, and a good recruitment process should include sufficient tests and conversations to be as sure as humanly possible that you’ve made the right decision. It is also the responsibility of the applicant to be sure the role is right for them and they share in this decision. Currently new applicants have more choice than hirers due to the volume of vacancies in the UK job market so they are even more responsible for making the right decision. As a recruiter it’s my job to help guide them to that right decision by being aware of the ethics of the clients I work with and the motivators and ethics of the applicant. My own professional ethics mean that I will be honest and as transparent as possible in this process.

So, in summary, if you a set of professional ethics that the whole company and its people reflects and believes in and an ethical recruitment process, then you also need to know what happens when it goes wrong and how quickly you will act to correct things. Part of being an ethical business is accepting that you will have to let people go because they don’t meet the professional ethical standard that you and the team have set. It’s vital to protect your team when you’re on your business adventure crossing the commercial ice by ensuring that you’re tied to the right people!

James Parkin is Associate Director at Eximius Group.


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