Managing people in the tough world of modern business doesn’t leave much room for moral principles, right? That depends on how you see it…

With changes to the way people think about and choose their employer, ethical management is becoming more important to all businesses, and crucial to some. Ethical HR isn’t about inaction, being ‘soft’ or ‘ducking’ an issue that has to be tackled, and in fact, it can give real competitive advantage for your business.

Stephens Scown has experienced this first hand by becoming one of the best companies to work for in the UK for the third year running. We are ranked number 16 in the influential Sunday Times list of the top 100 mid-sized firms to work for and are the highest ranked solicitors in the country. We have seen our own workforce flourish by making active changes in how we act and do business.

So what does Ethical HR look like in practice? Every business is different but this is a good starter…

– Ethics are often communicated in agreed organisation values. But are the staff aware of these values and does the business uphold them and act in accordance with them when making all decisions? We can all think of examples where corporate mission statements don’t ring true as their actions don’t support the sentiments expressed.

– Being committed to honest communication and employee engagement. Employees don’t expect their bosses to never make the wrong decisions or to tell them everything that is going on, but they do want to be kept informed of the big picture and of progress on projects, and to know the organisation is genuinely learning from mistakes. Employee engagement can deliver massive business benefits: from increased productivity and efficiency, generating innovation, reducing the costs of turnover and hiring, or increasing the reach of positive ‘word-of-mouth’ or social media marketing within your wider customer community.

– Staying open to feedback. Employees want the opportunity to give ideas and be part of improving processes and the work environment. They want to know that these ideas are not just ‘dismissed out of hand’. In our experience, organisations that have regular feedback built into what they do (both from the business and from employees), have less issues in implementing change and less formal grievance and disciplinary processes to manage.

– Saying thank you. It’s not all about the money these days. People want to feel valued for what they do and bring to your organisation.

– Don’t tolerate rude, discourteous or disrespectful behaviour. If people feel valued for their work and have the opportunity to give their views on the business, they generally are more open to understanding where their own behaviour needs to change to be brought in line with the organisation’s values.

– Seeking a diverse workforce. We all have different characteristics, abilities and experiences. Irrespective of whether those characteristics are protected in law (e.g. race, age, gender) workplace diversity is good for business. In a competitive recruitment market, the more diverse the pool we can attract applicants from, the more likely we are to find the talent we need.

– Sometimes we have to make decisions that may harm people – e.g. rejecting a job applicant, or selecting from a pool of staff for redundancy. By acting ethically, for example, by basing decisions strictly on the well thought out business need, following company policies and delivering bad news in the way we would want it delivered to ourselves, we best protect the future and reputation of the business for those who remain within it. Do managers lead by example in acting with integrity?

– HR staff handle the most sensitive personal data about employees. Protecting that data in an appropriate manner, especially given the cyber-security challenges posed by criminals, is a crucial ethical matter for HR today. A privacy breach can be hugely damaging.

– Staying on the right side of the law. HR professionals have a key role in implementing procedures that keep their employers away from unnecessary legal risks. An appearance in court or tribunal can, in itself, lead to bad press and damage to company reputation – think Sports Direct for example. On the flipside, developing a positive reputation as an ethical employer will help you to compete to attract talent to your business. If you have marketable skills and experience, would you apply to work for a business with a poor reputation for ethics? Probably not!

– Ensure you have a well thought out and employee powered Corporate Social Responsibility policy.

But are good ethics good for business I hear you cry?

We certainly believe so… In November we were announced as the UK Law Firm of the Year at the British Legal Awards. We’re the first large law firm in the UK to give all eligible members of staff an equal share in its profits. In the year to April 2016 we also saw revenues rise by 18% to nearly £18m (after increases of 12% and 13% in the two preceding years).

This success has been replicated in our clients that have sought to walk the ethical path.

We’re always happy to talk about our own journey and our work with clients in this regard over a coffee .