Ethical Leadership: A Real Life Challenge

The past two weeks in my professional life have been difficult.  I am part of a project team responsible for implementing a human resource information system (HRIS) in our organization of more than seven hundred employees, the majority of whom have never used an HRIS before.  A major part of this implementation has been re-evaluating and significantly altering our business practices, which now need to be communicated to all employees in addition to training them to use this new system.  We go live in mid-December, at a time when many employees take a week or more off for the holidays.  Additionally, we lost our two key payroll people who built the payroll and benefits side of the system and who held knowledge and understanding; they left our organization at a critical point, when the system components they built were in the middle of parallel testing and their knowledge was needed to help us understand the impacts to the other side (the HR side) of the system.   


As a project team we are feeling intense pressure to make this work and to go live on time.  Not doing so will adversely impact employees and has significant cost implications if we deliver a subpar system or have to delay go live.  HR and Finance are feeling pressure as they prepare for jobs that look very different beginning next week and do not yet have the training they need to be successful.  Employees are voicing concern and stress about the many changes they are facing and the multiple unknowns of our new work environment.  As I am personally responsible for large amounts of building and refining this system, training different groups of stakeholders in its use, and both teaching and completing employee data entry before we go live, I am experiencing levels of stress that are far beyond anything I’ve known before.  


What does any of this have to do with ethics?  I’ve been part of decisions throughout this whole process which have weighed what is best for individuals, small groups of stakeholders, and the organization as a whole.  For me, this is where the stress resides.  As a leader, I know I am strong.  I possess major leadership traits: intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity and sociability (Northouse, 2016).  What I am learning, however, is that being a strong leader doesn’t make facing ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma any easier.


The multitude of ethical dilemmas faced throughout this project are due in part to a shift in our ethical climate as an organization.  I would characterize the old ethical climate as both instrumental and rules-focused.  The ethical climate has been instrumental in terms of individuals at the corporate level of our organization doing what suits their personal preferences and beliefs and rules-focused in terms of creating rules and policies to uphold their ability to do what best suited them in the name of doing what is best for our organization (Victor and Cullen, 1987).  Our ethical climate is shifting toward being more caring, with a greater focus on what is best for our people (Victor and Cullen, 1987).  


This conflict has played out as we have built this HRIS.  Some individuals wanted to build it to suit the way things have always been done, giving them greater power and control over employees — a desire that was fueled by their distrust of employees’ competence and ensuring their own personal emotional gain.  Others on the team wanted to build the system with looser rules and policies around elements that benefit employees, with the intent to build greater trust, increase retention through job satisfaction, and to simplify things by eliminating barriers of unnecessary policy and administrative burden.  You can guess which camp I’m in, to be sure.  


What has been difficult is watching this conflict play out across the organization as we’ve gone through different stages of implementation.  Communicating new benefits and the extension of benefits to more employees — something that definitely speaks to meeting the needs of the majority of employees — has been met with anger and frustration over administrative function changes from some and cries of joy and appreciation from others.  It has also highlighted that different groups of employees tend to have different ethical perspectives, that may be cause of and/or result from departmental ethical climate, which aligns with Victor and Cullen’s (1987) findings.  While social workers and other direct service workers whose work is by nature caring have received these changes with excitement about the positive impact on employees as a whole, finance has focused more specifically on the added (minimal) cost and how every last penny will be allocated across funding sources.  


Perhaps my greatest takeaway — from this implementation and its alignment with the study of ethical leadership — has been the need to consider multiple factors, including ethical climate, when navigating the ethical decisionmaking process as well as communicating the resulting decisions in the most thoughtful way possible.  When it comes to organizational change and conflict, everything is gray, including what is good or bad, right or wrong.  As a leader, this is a real and continuous challenge.  



Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.


Victor, B., & Cullen, J. B. (1987). A theory and measure of ethical climate in organizations. Research in Corporate Social Performance and Policy, 9, 51-71.

One Comment

  1. Cyndie Navarro December 4, 2017 at 4:47 AM #

    Navigating the gray area of ethics as a human resources professional can be tricky, especially when (as in your organization) you have leadership approaching the situation from varying perspectives, values, needs, wants, and ethical standards. Northouse refers to this by suggesting, “in any decision-making situation, ethical issues are either implicitly or explicitly involved. The choices leaders make and how they respond in a given circumstance are informed and directed by their ethics” (Northouse, 2016). In addition, it seems your organization is facing leadership at different levels of self-interest versus concern for others. For example, with a utilitarianism approach to this situation leaders would make a decision based on the understanding that “the morally correct action is the action that maximizes social benefits while minimizing social costs” (Schumann, 2001). If the organization’s leadership is more concerned with maximizing profit over employee concerns, leadership may be engaging in ethical egoism (Northouse, 2016) which could alienate employees or other leaders who are seeking a more altruistic approach to this situation. In regard to self-interest versus concern for others, “altruism is an approach that suggests that actions are moral if their primary purpose is to promote the best interest of others. From this perspective, a leader may be called on to act in the interests of others, even when it runs contrary to his or her own self-interests” (Bowie, 1991). How do you feel your current ethical climate measure up in terms of self-interest versus concern for others? Are current concerns being addressed in a manner in which employees feel heard and valued? If not, employees may also begin to behave unethically, as the standards for their ethical decision making will be reflective of leaderships’ own decision making. “The leader’s behavior is often seen as representative of the organization, so her/his behavior is seen as the standard that all others in the organization should strive for” (PSY 533, 2017).
    I hope that you are able to smoothly transition employees to the new HRIS and that your stress minimizes as more people become familiar with new processes.

    Bowie, N.E. (1991). Challenging the egoistic paradigm. Business Ethics Quarterly, 1(1), 1-21.
    Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice. 7th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage
    PSY 533. (2017). Unit 05: Lesson 13 – Ethical Climate. Retrieved from
    Schumman, , P.L. (2001). A moral principles framework for human resource management ethics. Human Resources Management Review, 11, 93-111.

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