HR’s Newest Gig: Chief Integrity Officer…

Jessica Lee Culture, Kris Dunn

 

I was in one of our break rooms recently making a cup of coffee when I heard an employee telling a few of our clients (who were visiting us) about another employee’s personal situation. He meant well  – they always do – but I perked up when I heard him describing, in vivid detail, an accident that one of our employees had been in. And of course, the HR cop in me came out fast and furiously, and I had to butt in.

“I don’t think we’re sharing about that whole accident thing. It’s kinda private,” I said with a big smile,Integrity trying to be slightly passive about it and hoping he’d get it.

 

“No, no. They know her too. I’m just updating”, and he started in.

 

And with that, his opposition to my assertion forced out an HR cop alert! HR cop on the premises! Sirens ensued. And I couldn’t even let him finish his sentence. “It doesn’t matter that they know her too. It’s a private issue. You’re sharing information about her health and that isn’t right. It’s private!”

 

Sigh. You’ve had those conversations too, haven’t you? And honestly, I could have gone on and on about the matter, but my cup of coffee was done brewing and I didn’t think he needed (or wanted) to hear the lecture about why it’s OK for Steve Jobs’ health information to be public whereas the rest of us, it’s a different story. So,     I left it at that and admittedly, I was really annoyed when I left the break room because I hate having to put my HR cop hat on. Don’t you? I mean, I’m not the police. And I despise the policing, enforcement and compliance components of the HR world because we’re so much better, and dare I say it, strategic, than that. I get that compliance has to be done and that we’ve gotta make sure I-9’s are getting filled out, and minimum wage posters are being hung, and COBRA notices are getting sent out post-termination… but that doesn’t define who we are as HR pros and what value we create for our organizations.

 

But what if folks started looking to HR even more for this very reason? And what if we were asked to start serving as “integrity officers” to perhaps prevent some of the corporate scandals that seem to keep cropping up?

 

The Financial Times columnist Stefan Stern wrote recently about a think-tank meeting he attended with HR executives in London who discussed whether they should have spoken up sooner about the corporate excess they may have seen in their own organizations:

 

“One [of the HR execs] said some HR directors at the banks had expressed regret at their failure to stay the hands of their chief executives – but added that another had admitted privately that, in his case, there would have been no point in trying… 

Patrick Wright, professor at Cornell University… found that there are concerns about the way ethical issues can get downplayed, or even completely ignored, because nobody else in a senior role will raise them. Guess who gets volunteered to do so? “The HR director is told: ‘You need to get this on the table’,” he says. Not easy – especially when you have little idea how much public support you will receive from your colleagues. Perhaps, Prof. Wright suggests, the HR director needs to become a kind of ‘chief integrity officer’, who could avoid being penalised if the chief executive’s appetite for integrity turns out to be limited.”

First of all, there’s the question of whether an integrity enforcement or integrity-fostering function could be what prevents corporate excess and therefore some of the scandals we’ve witnessed. I mean, can you imagine? Let’s play out a hypothetical chief integrity officer in conversation with Merrill Lynch’s outgoing CEO: “I don’t think that getting an $87,000 rug would be an integrity filled decision. Do you? Especially given our climate? Let’s re-think that!” Yeah, right! I mean, I sure wish someone had that conversation with him – but part of me wonders if we should simply raise our level of expectation and demand that people behave with integrity as a core value, sans an integrity officer.

But HR as integrity officers… I’m still digesting that one. Do we want that function? Are we the best to handle that role? Besides individual decisions or actions and assessing them for integrity, it would be about fostering a culture in which decisions are made with integrity and are ethical. And we’re good at looking at doing the right thing, and not just the legal thing, plus I think HR is ultimately a (if not, the) culture champion… but is the chief integrity officer a role that’s right, and right for us? Jump in the conversation… I’m not quite sure how I feel about this one, but if you’re telling me this could have prevented some of these corporate scandals and perhaps, the financial crisis, well then… sign someone up! I know some HR leaders who could fit the bill!