Nothing can be legally right if it is morally wrong

Let me begin by stating that in no way am I espousing one religious view over another. Further those of you, who have followed my blog since its inception in 2007, know that I rarely touch on the ethics end of our profession. Having said that one of my local churches once again posted the Sunday sermon topic, which hit a nerve. The billboard read “Nothing can be legally right when it is morally wrong.”

As human resource professionals we are confronted with this dilemma each and every day we exercise our responsibilities to our organizations. Consider this real time scenario:

In the mid to late 1970’s I worked as a recruiter with several contingency recruiting firms in the northeast part of the United States.  We specialized in the recruitment of Accounting, Tax and Finance candidates for corporations across the country. At the end of the period with one of the Firms I had risen to the position of VP with the authority to make agreements with potential sources of candidates. One of the prime sources of these candidates were the auditors of the big 8 CPA firms. On one such occasion I met with the outplacement director of one of these firms during which we agreed that if the recruiting firm stopped raiding auditors at their client companies we would in turn receive the names of all the auditors who would not be made partner. We returned to the office and announced to the staff what we had agreed to. Within the first hour one of the banks of recruiters did exactly what we promised we would not do. When I brought it to the attention of the Division President I was told if you have any business ethics you did not belong working for the firm.


So was what they did legal? Yes there was nothing illegal about raiding the clients for the public auditors working there. Was it morally right? To some it might be, to me it was totally wrong. It meant my word was not worth anything of value to a potential partner.  This is a pretty clean example of the idea behind the title of this blog. But, what if the response is not quite as simple as the scenario?


As HR professionals, we are confronted with a never-ending dilemma. On one hand we are delegated the duty to be the organizational policeman. The organization expects and in some cases demands that we rapidly correct the organization when they plan to do something that is blatantly illegal. That is well and good, but what happens in those circumstances when the action the organization undertakes is totally legal under every view we can imagine, but the human capital get hurt in the long run.

Case Study: Last week the CEO of AOL was caught in a phone call to employees telling them that the organization was changing the way they paid out the 401(k) benefits. They went from paying it out anytime over the year to a once-a-year payout in December, essentially cutting the 401(k) benefits. He also went on to blame the cuts on the expense of implementing the Affordable Care Act requirements. At the same time the CEO saw nothing wrong receiving a large increase in salary, which would have more than covered the increased expenses he was complaining about.


Was this action legal? Yes the organization has the right to plan out the dates of distribution of their corporate investments? Was it morally right? Not if the final result is that it hurt the human capital adversely in the long run. Some could argue differently I suppose. I would contend that the above scenario talks about the real dilemma facing HR professionals. These are the situations where the organization puts the total organization ahead of the human capital that, are critical to the success of the organization.

We constantly hear of organization’s complaining about the lack of employee engagement. We need to come to the realization that Cadbury Chocolate had it correct when in its high spot in their history they understood that the way to get employees ENGAGED was to take care of their needs and welfare. They were the ones who built homes for their employees so they had a roof over their head while they worked in the factory. They were the ones who recognized that by creating the pension plans like we know today, they were insuring that the employee was prepared for the future. Was it required no but it was morally the right thing to do.

As the gatekeeper for the talent management efforts of the organization we have the responsibility to meet the dual demands of ensuring that the actions of our management are both legal and morally right. It is our duty to make sure that every management decision takes in to account the betterment of the organizational society and the betterment of the rank and file employees. I am fully cognizant that at times this can be difficult. However the real desired outcome sis that we recognize that the rank and file is more than a number in an accounting file. The desired outcome is that we recognize that our rank and file is critical parts of our organization. The future of our organizations depends on our ability to treat

What are your thoughts? Let’s start the dialogue. E-Mail me or respond to this post.

Views: 301

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on February 10, 2014 at 3:32pm

ISTM that legality and morality have complicated and often irrelevant connections....

IMSM, there are people in Texas doing 20 years for possessing a small amount of pot, and we have other people ("banksters") getting big bonuses while costing millions of employees their jobs, and millions of homeowners their homes and equity.

 In conclusion: "morality" can come from many sources, but "legality" typical comes from the lawmakers that the wealthy and powerful elites have "bought".

No Cheers,



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