How Industrial Relations Informs the Teaching of Ethics in Human Resource Management

By Smith, Charles G.; Hindman, Hugh D. | Southern Business Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

How Industrial Relations Informs the Teaching of Ethics in Human Resource Management


Smith, Charles G., Hindman, Hugh D., Southern Business Review


Most people want to do the "right thing." This is true in business as well as in life. It is the duty of business educators to provide a framework for students and peers to judge the operational, legal, and ethical rigor of managerial decisions. This article focuses attention on the human resource management function. The importance of human resource management (HRM) practices to the success of the firm is accepted by scholars and practitioners alike and will be assumed here. But human resource management practices are important not only because of their efficacy for the firm, but also because they directly affect people and, so, have the potential to bring significant good or significant harm to both individuals and to society. To better inform the debate over ethicality of HR practices, the authors suggest a re-examination human resource management through the lens of its historical and philosophical predecessors-the industrial relations school of thought.

Contemporary disputations on the nature of the employment relationship are at times truncated, uninspired, and lifeless. America is not one big happy family and neither are business organizations. Nor should they be, as many in the human resources field would hold. Choices need to be made, some rooted in history, some novel to the present. Some are operationally sound, some are not. Some choices are legal, some are not, and some are morally defensible and others are not. A discussion about the appropriate structures and polices at work is in order. While business schools often avoid the historical and philosophical backdrop that give texture and substance to these decisions, an understanding of the intellectual antecedents of today's employment relationship, and their inherent tensions will afford business decision makers a framework from which to better judge the significance and the ethics of their actions.

The article presents an industrial relations system model updated to reflect current business exigencies. It further offers a brief historical and philosophical journey into America's experience with the employee-employer relationship linking economic with moral theory and considering three alternative moral viewpoints on the industrial relations system. Next is a review of the treatment of human resource management issues in popular collegiate business ethics texts. The article concludes with implications for teaching business ethics in human resource management. The authors' purpose is not to promote their own views, but rather to frame the debate concerning the treatment of men and women in their working lives. The industrial relations model affords decision makers enormous flexibility with their human resource practices, work structures and process. The article identifies questions of concern. How they are answered is idiosyncratic to the business decision maker and, hopefully, rooted in sound moral reasoning.

The Industrial Relations System

Students of business ethics rarely focus on America's industrial relations system, preferring instead to study macro socio-economic forces underlying systems of political economy such as capitalism, socialism, or communism or, alternatively, opting to investigate micro socioeconomic concerns such as price fixing, product safety, false advertising, employment discrimination, or bribery (Adler © Bigoness, 1992). Here, however, attention is directed to the institution of the employee - employer relationship and the control, authority and decision making relationships generated. These considerations are central to industrial relations system theory and lie on a middle stratum of the hierarchy of theoretical abstractions.

An industrial relations system is a conceptual tool used to order one's beliefs, attitudes, and behavior about the manner in which people deal with one another at work. Its purpose is to provide an understanding of the development and operation of structures and processes involved in the production of goods and services as they relate to the parties involved and to the larger society. …

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