CHROs explore how to navigate complex ethical dilemmas in HR

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HR practitioners face a litany of ethical considerations when it comes to managing the people process, not least of which is data privacy, employee rights, and unconscious bias. CHRO South Africa spoke with leading CHROs to find out how they are dealing with the matter.

From judging people on the way they talk to protecting sensitive payroll and other information, South African HR practitioners have a unique set of ethical issues to consider.

Regent Business School highlights several aspects that need to be taken on board when it comes to fairly dealing with employees, including having to ensure there is no bias in the candidate selection process, promoting organisational culture and diversity, holistic training that is not skills-based, and harmonious resolution of conflict.

In this digital age, especially with the advent of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), HR also needs to ensure that sensitive information is kept private.

Kyle Chetty, head of people at Planet42 points out that HR executives need to implement stringent data privacy regulations if they are to get this right.

“These policies should outline clear guidelines on how employee data is collected, stored, accessed and used within the organisation. Conducting regular audits to ensure data collection and processing practices align with ethical standards is also essential. This includes reviewing data access permissions, data retention policies, and data security measures to protect against unauthorised access or data breaches. Moreover, provide comprehensive training programmes to HR staff on data privacy principles and best practices. This training should cover topics such as data protection laws, handling sensitive information, obtaining informed consent from employees and ensuring data accuracy and integrity,” he says.

Kyle furthermore emphasises the importance of ethically approaching the integration of data analytics and AI in HR processes to minimise bias and promote equitable treatment.

“One needs to regularly have impact assessments to identify potential biases in AI systems and algorithms used in HR processes. Implementing diverse teams to develop and review AI algorithms also helps ensure inclusivity and fairness.To include the human element, we also have to ensure employees understand how AI is used and its impact on decision-making.”

Eliminating bias

Malisha Awunor, group head of people and culture at EOH and 2023 CHRO Awards Strategy & Leadership Award winner, says outside just using technology, HR professionals need to look within and determine their own preconceived notions of people so that they can eliminate bias. This includes acknowledging that someone’s accent is not an indication of intelligence, and neither is speed in responding to questions, for example.

“If I was interviewing someone for a role and walked with them from the reception area to the interview room, and they didn’t keep up with me, the chance of them being shortlisted could be reduced. What we need to consider, in this scenario, is that the person could have a disability or be wearing high heels. We shouldn’t judge them from our perspective of what we were taught about what success, hunger and drive looks like. These are very uncomfortable personal challenges, and we need to review the constructs that inform our decision making,” she says.

Malisha adds that one of the most important aspects of ongoing engagement in relation to diversity, equity, and inclusion is psychological safety, which means making certain that people feel safe addressing experiences of exclusion, and leaders need to be consistent in the way they treat employees.

“As part of removing bias as much as possible in the workplace, employers need to ensure that a variety of voices are available to a company. This aids companies when it comes to finding solutions to challenges as well as new ways of doing business because of the different viewpoints that will be represented,” she explains.

She further highlights the need for HR professionals to educate themselves about cultural intelligence, which is the “ability to work effectively in multicultural contexts”.

Malisha highlights four components of cultural intelligence:

  • Drive: The motivation and confidence to engage with others who are different.
  • Knowledge: The understanding of cultural differences.
  • Strategy: The awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions.
  • Action: The capability to adapt behaviour in cross-cultural situations.   

Johanna Reekie, currently in private practice in Industrial Psychology, Psychology and Criminology, agrees.

She says, “HR practitioners often have the fear of reprisal, harassment, victimisation and workplace bullying by middle or senior management.”

Johanna adds that, while unconscious bias in hiring and promotion can never fully be eradicated, HR should drive hiring processes and be fully consulted and agree to hiring and promotion processes. “This should include a clear retention, hiring and promotion policy in line with internal resource requirements and with relevant legislation.”

Specific initiatives to help remove bias, which will also addresses the issue of “favours for buddies”, include:

  • Internal and external advertisement of all available vacancies.
  • Employees being trained during induction on all relevant employment and promotion practices, and the principles underlying these.
  • Fair application and promotion practices should be in place and, as driven by the HR department in terms of selection criteria, these should be clearly communicated to employees and could include EE requirements.

Johanna adds that fair treatment policies should be well communicated, and a process of grievance should be in place. “This policy should clearly address employee rights and aim to reduce fear and victimisation of employees.”

Rooting out jobs for buddies

Eliminating bias is not the only consideration when it comes to hiring, corruption too must be taken out of the equation.

Recent research conducted by Dr Mokgolo Manasseh and Professor Maoka Dikotla highlighted that the hiring process is skewed towards nepotism and favouritism.

Being ethical in a society where corruption is endemic has also been highlighted as a concern.

MTN South Africa CFO Tsholofelo Molefe, who testified at the State Capture Commission of Inquiry on her time at Eskom, says: “As the group CFO, I experienced a tremendous amount of pressure to engage in unsavoury behaviour. I was dealing with threats from my superiors to approve unlawful contracts.”

She adds that being under so much pressure as a woman against two men – put her in a very vulnerable position, and her job was on the line but she refused to crack under pressure. “You have to be clear about what you stand for as a leader, even if it means sacrificing your job. If I had to be stripped of everything I have and had nothing left, the one thing I would be proud of is that I at least have my integrity intact.”

Tsholofelo believes that ethical leadership is about not blinking when you must do the right thing, knowing what your values are, and being very clear on what you stand for. “You also need to be bold enough to stand your ground and have the courage to say no,” she said.

Protecting personal information

Ahmore Burger-Smidt, director and head of data and privacy at Werksmans Attorneys explains that POPIA changes the way organisations process, store, secure and manage information.

“HR and talent functions act as custodians of significant volumes of often sensitive or personal data in every organisation and must therefore take centre stage as this new and demanding law comes into full operation,” she says.

HR professionals have many responsibilities but none as important as their duty to protect employees and their companies, notes Ahmore.

She adds that laws and internal policies often require HR departments to collect and handle a tremendous amount of employee information and if thieves can access HR records, they have struck gold.

“It's not all fines and lawsuits either, many of the costs [of a data breach] are not as clear cut as you might imagine. Companies always need to think about reputational damage, the PR nightmare that comes with the data breach and employee disengagement,” she explains.

Johanna adds that, in practice, this means that access to data-driven decision-making should be limited to the HR department and the relevant managerial staff, and employees need to provide informed consent in terms of the use of the data.

To transparently communicate how data is used, HR practitioners need to ensure open, fair, and well-communicated practices, which should include an internal and external communication strategy.

“There needs to be clear communication as to how data will be used as well as the personnel who should and will have access to data,” she concludes.

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