Considering ethics in human resources

By Andria Bianchi

In most mid-to-large sized healthcare organizations and all Canadian academically-affiliated hospitals, anyone (i.e., patients, families, volunteers, clinicians, and staff) can contact an ethicist to obtain an additional, more impartial perspective on ethically complex matters that are relevant to their experiences. Human Resources (HR) is one area that may encounter ethically significant dilemmas that can have significant effects on individuals, teams, and entire organizations.

In their 2001 review of ethical issues in HR systems, Buckley et al. say that “there are a number of issues in the design and implementation of human resources systems that have ethical implications, which may or may not be handled well.” Some of the topics and questions with ethical implications in which HR may be a key stakeholder are: compensation decisions (e.g. how can we ensure that the most deserving employees are granted adequate compensation increases if this is an HR goal?); performance appraisal processes (e.g. what should we do to mitigate the subjective and/or political nature of performance appraisals?); organizational reward systems (e.g. should we reward people based on the outcomes they achieve or based on the means that they use to achieve certain outcomes?); managing and mitigating workplace bullying (e.g. how can we ensure that our policies apply equally to frontline staff and organizational leaders?); and staffing selection processes (e.g. is there a way to mitigate potential biases when hiring staff? Is it ever defensible to overlook applicants if their CV contains a gap?).

In Ontario (which is the context that I am familiar with), the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) offers guidance that may help to resolve some of the ethical dilemmas that organizations, and specifically HR systems, encounter. There are equivalent Human Rights Commissions across Canada. One area in which the OHRC provides guidance is around interviewing and making hiring decisions. They suggest that an employer should “aim for a fair process that focuses on each candidate’s ability to perform the essential job duties.”

As noted above, one of the most complex and ethically contentious topics in HR concerns that of hiring practices and staff selection. As stated by the OHRC, a fair process ought to be maintained when a person is being hired for a position. In order to ensure that a fair process is followed, they suggest that it should “be uniform, consistent, transparent, fair, unbiased, comprehensive and objective.” Certain steps can be taken in order to achieve these aims, such as: (1) ensuring that candidates are only asked specific job-related questions during an interview rather than questions about personal values or beliefs and/or (2) not prioritizing people to receive employment opportunities for reasons that are irrelevant and/or unduly detrimental to others (e.g. hiring a less-than-ideal employee for a new position because of an internal relationship).

From an ethics perspective, I often pause when I read words such as “unbiased” and “objective” since there is reason to believe that it may be impossible to make decisions (e.g. hiring decisions) in a completely unbiased and/or objective way. (A more challenging issue is that we don’t all agree about what objectivity consists in, but this is a point best set aside for a more philosophically-focused discussion.) Although members of a selection committee may not have any explicit biases that would obviously influence hiring decisions, it is almost certainly the case that everyone will have implicit or subconscious biases (i.e., biases that they are unaware of) and subjective values, preferences, and beliefs.


There is an existing body of literature on implicit biases. This literature often refers to the implicit bias test (IAT), which is a widespread test that is meant to determine a person’s implicit biases. As described by legal scholars Christine Jolls and Cass R. Sunstein, the tests have shown that traditionally disadvantaged groups are those with whom people tend to unknowingly hold certain biases against (even from members of the groups themselves!). Although some recent literature seems to suggest that implicit biases do not, in fact, influence human behaviour, the biases still exist; whether they do and/or how much they may influence human behaviour when it comes to making decisions (such as, say, hiring practices), is still up for debate.

In order to enable ethical decision-making for hiring processes, it is important to try to mitigate potential biases and remain as objective as possible. However, I think it is equally important to be transparent in noting that an unbiased and completely objective process is probably impossible. In order to strive for less bias and more objectivity, it may be important to ensure that hiring committees are diverse and represent people who identify as members of different personal and professional groups. This will not eliminate bias and subjectivity, of course (specifically since each individual will bring their own subjective lens to the process), but it may at least encourage different perspectives and voices to be heard. Also, employing affirmative action/positive discrimination policies may help to mitigate waning conceptions of the kinds of people who should be employed for particular roles. Furthermore, it may be apt for all members of a hiring committee to reflect upon their own values, beliefs, preferences and potential biases in advance of a hiring process; this may inspire individuals to bring a more thoughtful approach to the staff selection process and encourage us to question what may be lost if we continue to hire similar people when roles open up.

Ultimately, the decisions that are made within an HR system will often, if not always, have an underlying ethical foundation, and they will not be entirely unbiased or objective. Exploring the ethics of decision-making processes and consulting with an ethicist may prove to be illuminating when considering ethically defensible organizational decisions.


Andria Bianchi, PhD, is a Bioethicist at the University Health Network and a board member of the Canadian Bioethics Society.