Ethical vs. Legal Responsibilities for HR Professionals (2023)

​Questions about workplace ethics have no single or simple answer. So much depends on a situation's specifics. Even issues that seem straightforward can present numerous hidden traps—both legal and ethical—to the people trying to resolve them.

To make things even more complicated in HR, practitioners have "well-defined responsibilities but also have responsibilities as a private citizen, as a workplace colleague and maybe as a friend," said Michael Connor, editor and publisher of the online magazine Business Ethics. "Those are all very different roles."

When an ethics question arises, Connor says, HR professionals need to understand exactly what role they're playing. "As a representative of the company, you have one set of responsibilities. As a concerned private citizen, you have other responsibilities. It's nice when those converge, but that's not always the case."

"It's a very tough topic," agreed Laura Sack, a New York City-based partner and co-chair of the East Coast employment practice of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. "In an HR person's world, not very much is black and white, but [the questions you face] may still have legal implications."

Make Boundaries Clear

The stakes involved in ethical questions are often high, if not for the company, then for the employees and managers who are involved. For example, what's an HR generalist to do when he promises to hold something in confidence and that pledge proves impossible to keep?

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John Boyce, vice president of human resources for enhanced network provider Vail Systems in Deerfield, Ill., faced that conundrum at a previous employer. While training new workers at a refinery, he told them he would keep any safety violations they witnessed before their next training session in confidence so they could discuss them openly. Expecting to hear stories of minor issues, such as goggles not being worn as work was done, he was stunned to hear two workers describe how they were instructed to vent poisonous gas into the air, a clear violation of company policy and safety procedures. "They could have died," Boyce recalled.

Taking the two men aside, he told them that he'd had no idea they had been put in such a dangerous situation and that, despite his promise of confidentiality, he had no choice but to report the incident. When the employees objected, an apologetic Boyce responded, "You wouldn't want to work at a place where this wasn't reported." Although he was able to transfer one of the employees to another department, the second had to remain with his original team, which he described a year later as "going through hell."

The lesson he learned, Boyce said, was that HR professionals have to set boundaries around what "in confidence" means. While he had promised confidentiality to the employees he was training, keeping that promise would have resulted in potentially life-threatening operations continuing at the refinery, unbeknownst to management. Today, he instructs his staff members to tell workers that if they tell HR something in confidence that should be reported, then HR will do so.

Deciding What to Do

Many common situations that confront HR professionals may seem to be ethical dilemmas but are actually professional judgment calls, Sack noted. For example, if an HR staffer suspects an employee is the victim of domestic violence, is the staffer obligated to call the police? What if an employee asks to forgo a pay increase because accepting it would mean a cut in social services benefits? Or another is using a parking placard intended for people with disabilities and bragging to co-workers that it actually belongs to her brother-in-law and she's just "borrowing" it for her own convenience? Does HR have an obligation to look into such matters?

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The answer varies. "I see HR as having to determine whether the issue involves the employer or not," Sack said. "They have to decide if it's appropriate or necessary to get involved or not."

To do that, she suggests asking yourself these questions:

  • To my knowledge, is there a potential legal issue here for the company?
  • Is someone's safety in jeopardy?
  • Does this conflict with the company's culture, mission or policies, or what we expect of our employees?

If your answer to any of these is yes, then consider taking action, Sack said. That, of course, leaves you with a new question: What exactly should that action be? For her part, Sack wouldn't characterize the above examples as "ethical" issues for HR, but rather as judgment calls for HR to make, although she noted that "I can see where they might be seen [as ethical quandaries]."

Others say the issue isn't that simple. "Ethical versus legal is a false dichotomy. Many issues are both, and almost certainly any legal issue is also going to be an ethical issue," said Chris MacDonald, director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at Ryerson University in Toronto. "The only question is whether the legal issue is sufficiently clear and pressing as to make ethical decision-making seem irrelevant."

For example, MacDonald said, "Where I live there's a legal duty to report suspected child abuse. If an HR professional came to suspect that, the legal duty is sufficiently strong that no one should need to engage in nuanced ethical reasoning. If you're not sure whether there's a legal issue, you need to consult a lawyer."

And bear in mind that areas that at first seem gray often are clarified the more you learn about them. "Many ethical dilemmas depend on a precision of facts," Connor said. This is why he "gets nervous" when hears that a practitioner "suspects" an employee "is somehow involved" in a domestic-violence situation, for example.

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"Facts matter," he emphasized. "The instinct to help is admirable, but make sure you have your facts straight. If you're not familiar with domestic abuse situations, consult with qualified professionals. Good intentions do not overcome the harm that can be done to an employee and/or his or her family" if you report your suspicions to the police and they turn out to be unwarranted.

Boyce agreed. "I wouldn't tell the generalist to call the police. Since they're not a mandated reporter, it would be overstepping on the company's part," he said. "I would encourage the generalist to talk to the person and provide EAP information and perhaps more targeted material or information, such as for a domestic abuse hotline, but taking it to the next step is going too far."

"HR can certainly confirm the employer's support for the victim," Sack said. "And some jurisdictions may confer certain legal rights on victims of domestic violence, such as time off from work to go to court. But I wouldn't recommend reporting your suspicions to authorities unless you have explicitly obtained the victim's consent. Reporting it without the victim's knowledge and consent could make things worse for the victim."

Ethics Without Judgment

For Connor, the question of an employee forgoing a raise in order to avoid social services cuts is straightforward. "Yes, it's ethical to go along. An individual's motives shouldn't figure into it," he said. "If they forgo a raise, so be it."

Boyce, also, wouldn't have a problem agreeing to allow an employee to decline a raise. However, he would take issue if the employee asked him to help concoct a way to receive more compensation and somehow keep it off the books, by providing gift cards, for example. His core belief in handling ethical issues is, "Don't lie."


Also, Connor warns that practitioners "need to be extremely careful" not to apply judgments that could be based on socioeconomic bias when addressing such situations.

"When an upper-class executive chooses to work part-time or flex-time in order to be more available for her or his children, that's not generally frowned upon—in part because that executive often has additional sources of income and doesn't require social services," he said. "Workers on the lower end of the salary scale often need to make different—but equally difficult—decisions that affect their status, pay and benefits."

It's Complicated

When many HR professionals confront ethical questions, they "seem not to know what to do, or even how to think about such matters," said James O'Toole, director of the Neely Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Southern California. He sees practitioners as being "far more comfortable dealing with [legal issues], especially when it comes to questions relating to labor law, which they see as legitimately within their bailiwick."

Because ethical dilemmas can be both subjective and nebulous, O'Toole recommends reading A Framework for Ethical Decision Making (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, 2009). It can help you recognize ethical issues and think about what actions you should take, he said.

"As you will quickly surmise, ethics isn't about a set of rules," he explained. Rather, it's a way of thinking about how you conduct your life and do your job. "Alas, HR people tend, instead, to think in terms of rules, and that may well be the reason why they shy away from ethics."

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While HR practitioners may object to O'Toole's contention that they "shy away" from ethical issues, many would probably agree with Boyce when he says, "The legal issues are relatively easy. There's a pretty clear line. The struggle comes when something is legal but wrong."

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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What are ethics legal and ethical responsibilities? ›

The law sets out what people are free to do, regardless of the effect that those actions have on others. Ethics describes what people should do, taking their responsibilities and the predictable consequences of their actions into account.

What are the ethical responsibilities of human resource management? ›

As human resource professionals, we are ethically responsible for promoting and fostering fairness and justice for all employees and their organizations. To create and sustain an environment that encourages all individuals and the organization to reach their fullest potential in a positive and productive manner.

What are the professional responsibilities of HR professionals? ›

Human Resources manages 5 main duties: talent management, compensation and employee benefits, training and development, compliance, and workplace safety. An HR department can help provide organizational structure and the ability to meet business needs by effectively managing the employee lifecycle.

Why is it important that HR professionals are ethical? ›

People are an organisation's most valuable resource. They need to feel valued in order to develop their talents, increase their productivity and choose to remain in an organisation. Ethics in HR ensures that with structures like L&D and retention efforts in place, an organisation will meet its employees' expectations.

What are 3 legal responsibilities? ›

Legal responsibilities
  • Selling goods and services. ...
  • Contracts. ...
  • Leasing premises. ...
  • Employing staff. ...
  • Occupational health and safety (OHS) ...
  • Privacy and information protection. ...
  • Intellectual property. ...
  • More information.

How do ethics differ from legal responsibilities? ›

The difference

Legality means an act is in accordance with the law. Ethics is about concepts of right and wrong behaviour. Some actions may be legal but in some people's opinion not ethical. For example, testing medicines on animals is legal in many countries but some people believe it is not ethical.

What is legal responsibilities in HR? ›

HR Management Responsibilities

These include issues relating to employee benefits and compensation, health and safety, leave entitlements, discrimination and harassment, confidentiality, and employee labor rights. It's crucial they have knowledge of all laws that affect human resources management.

What are the 3 major responsibilities of HR departments? ›

What are the three major roles of human resources management? Running payroll, writing job descriptions, creating workplace policies and procuring benefits packages are typical of HR administration.

What is an example of ethical in HRM? ›

For example, right to privacy, right to be paid in accordance with the work (fair compensation) and right to privacy are some areas that cannot be compromised upon.

What are the 7 roles of human resource management? ›

What Does an HR Manager Do? 7 Functions of the Human Resources Department
  • Recruitment and Hiring.
  • Training and Development.
  • Employer-Employee Relations.
  • Maintain Company Culture.
  • Manage Employee Benefits.
  • Create a Safe Work Environment.
  • Handle Disciplinary Actions.

What are the professional duties and responsibilities? ›

Common Competencies of Professional Responsibility

These competencies include: Honesty - being trustworthy, loyal, sincere, and fair. Integrity - consistency between actions, values, expectations, and outcomes. Transparency - operating where others can see what actions are performed.

What is the most important responsibility of HR? ›

Planning, coordinating, and supervising the employment of new employees are the responsibilities of HR managers. In addition to acting as a liaison between management and staff, they advise business executives on strategic planning. The role of an HR manager may be more crucial than ever in today's environment.

What is the ethical dilemma being faced by HR? ›

When faced with an ethical dilemma, a person is faced with having to select an option that doesn't align with an established code of ethics or societal norms, such as codes of law and religious teachings, or with their internal moral perceptions of right and wrong.

What is an example of legal responsibilities? ›

Legal responsibility is widely acknowledged by engineers. Absent parents have a clear legal responsibility to maintain their families wherever they can afford to. Legal responsibility for the training of school governors rests with local education authorities, which plan in the light of local needs.

What are examples of legal and ethical issues? ›

Some issues that have both ethical and legal components include:
  • Access to medical care.
  • Informed consent.
  • Confidentiality and exceptions to confidentiality.
  • Mandatory reporting.
  • Mandatory drug testing.
  • Privileged communication with healthcare providers.
  • Advance directives.
  • Reproductive rights/abortion.

What are legal and ethical considerations? ›

It defines the values and responsibilities that are fundamental to a particular profession. This code is intended to assist employees to act in ethically informed ways in the pursuit of the profession's values and aims.

What is the difference between working legally and working ethically? ›

Support workers need to understand that laws are designed to protect everyone's safety and rights as a citizen. These laws are the basis of the Policy and Procedures that support workers must follow when they work. Ethics are based on the values we live our lives by and are about what is right or wrong.

What are legal responsibilities? ›

Legal responsibility means specific duties imposed upon a person to care or provide for another including liability for personal obligations as granted through a Power of Attorney or Court order.

What are the legal compliance in HR? ›

Compliance means adherence. Thus, Statutory Compliance means adhering to rules and regulations. Statutory Compliance in HR refers to the legal framework that an organization should adhere to in dealing with its employees.

What are the legal issues in HR? ›

Areas of emphasis include employment discrimination, sexual harassment, employment contracts (implied and expressed), wrongful termination, employee leave, privacy issues, wage and salary issues and workplace violence.

What HR policies are legally required? ›

Disciplinary, dismissal and grievance policies are all required by law. They protect employees against unfair dismissal and also ensure businesses following employment laws when conducting disciplinary or dismissal actions.

What are the four 4 roles of Human Resource Management explain each briefly? ›

Acquisition of human resources (Getting people) Development of human resources (Preparing people) The motivation of human resources (Stimulating people) Maintenance of human resources (Keeping them)

What are 3 things HR should be concerned about as it relates to roles and responsibilities? ›

What are the key [25+] HR Key Responsibilities and Roles: The Ultimate guide
  • Recruitment of candidates.
  • Hiring the right employees for the right jobs.
  • Processing company payroll.
  • Conduct disciplinary actions.
  • Designing and updating existing company policies.
  • Maintaining employee records.
  • Conduct Analysis of Employee Benefits.

What are 10 examples of ethics? ›

of principles incorporate the characteristics and values that most people associate with ethical behavior.
  1. HONESTY. ...
  2. INTEGRITY. ...
  4. LOYALTY. ...
  5. FAIRNESS. ...

What are the 15 functional areas of HR? ›

2. Key Functions Of Human Resource Management
  • Human resource planning.
  • Recruitment.
  • Performance management.
  • Learning & development.
  • Career planning.
  • Information sharing.
  • Rewards & recognitions.
  • Compensation & benefits.
30 Oct 2022

What are the six functional areas of HRM? ›

Here are the key functions of human resources to help move your company forward:
  • Recruiting, hiring, and onboarding.
  • Human resource planning.
  • Benefits and compensation.
  • Performance management.
  • Training and development.
  • Employee engagement.
18 May 2022

What is ethical responsibility as professional? ›

Definition: Ethical responsibility is the ability to recognize, interpret and act upon multiple principles and values according to the standards within a given field and/or context.

What are the professional ethical standards? ›

Typically these include honesty, trustworthiness, transparency, accountability, confidentiality, objectivity, respect, obedience to the law, and loyalty.

What are five personal responsibilities? ›

Here are five examples:
  • Identify personal strengths and weaknesses. The first step to developing responsibility at work is to be honest about where you are now. ...
  • Set goals and create a plan to improve yourself. ...
  • Learn from your mistakes. ...
  • Follow through on commitments. ...
  • Develop excellent communication skills.

What are the HRM responsibilities and give examples? ›

Human resource management as a department in an organisation handles all aspects of employees and has various functions like human resource planning, Conducting Job analysis, recruitment and conducting job interviews, selection of human resources, Orienting, training, compensating, Providing benefits and incentives, ...

What are the unethical HR practices? ›

So, the discrimination based on high salary or incentives, favouritism is very common in the organisation which is very unethical. For these practices, well-deserved employees are neglected and as a result of this the business is getting down day by day. Strict action needs to be adopted against this.

What are the most critical challenges facing HR professional today? ›

HR deals with many issues, but probably the biggest challenges facing HR Departments today are Recruitment, Retention & Motivation, Leadership Development and Corporate Culture. As HR works to move to a more strategic role, addressing these issues has become a continual and time-consuming process. Here's why.

What is an example of an ethical responsibility? ›

Some common examples of ethical responsibility include setting a higher minimum wage, guaranteeing all materials are ethically sourced, and ensuring that all employees receive competitive pay and comprehensive benefits as well as treated with respect.

What is the relationship between ethics and law are ethical responsibilities the same as legal responsibilities? ›

Ethics and Law - Ethics are rules of conduct. Laws are rules developed by governments in order to provide balance in society and protection to its citizens. Ethics comes from people's awareness of what is right and wrong. Laws are enforced by governments to their people.

What is an example of ethical and legal? ›

A classic example is stealing to feed your family. Stealing is legally and ethically wrong, but if your family is starving it might be morally justified (Noel-Weiss et al., 2012). Kidder calls this a “right vs. right” dilemma.

What are the four areas of ethical responsibility? ›

Corporate social responsibility is traditionally broken into four categories: environmental, philanthropic, ethical, and economic responsibility.

What are 5 ethical behavior in the workplace? ›

Examples of ethical behaviors in the workplace includes; obeying the company's rules, effective communication, taking responsibility, accountability, professionalism, trust and mutual respect for your colleagues at work.

What is the difference between ethics and legal ethics? ›

Legal is the word used to define anything that concerns the law or its workings. It is applicable to all practices, languages, processes, procedures, cultures, and other relative concepts in a system of the law. On the other hand, ethics is the word used to define the traditional norms and morals of an individual.

What is legal responsibility in simple words? ›

Responsibility, in the context of the law, may refer to: Legal obligation. A measure of mental capacity, used in deciding the extent to which a person can be held accountable for a crime; see diminished responsibility.

What are 4 examples of responsibilities? ›

The following are illustrative examples.
  • Personal Responsibility. The responsibility to do positive things with your abilities, talents and resources.
  • Agency. Agency is your ability to influence what happens to you. ...
  • Moral Responsibility. ...
  • Legal Obligation. ...
  • Contractual Obligations. ...
  • Norms. ...
  • Social Role. ...
  • Profession.
8 May 2019

What legal responsibilities do companies have? ›

It is an employer's duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their work activities. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this.

What is legal but not ethical examples? ›

Breaking promises is generally legal, but is widely thought of as unethical; Cheating on your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend is legal, but unethical, though the rule against it is perhaps more honoured in the breach; …and so on.


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