Article: A hippocratic oath for HR

Life @ Work

A hippocratic oath for HR

Making a public commitment to uphold high professional standards and understanding the core of HR has become even more crucial in this age of rapid transformation of the HR function.
A hippocratic oath for HR

Oaths are almost as old as human language. According to some experts they have "been traced to a pre-religious, indeed, pre-animistic period of culture. Supernatural beings were unknown, and man believed that he possessed magic power which could produce any desired result. A vehicle of this power was the curse, which could kill as effectively as physical force... Thus, by use of a particular curse, man could determine both disaster and victim. Indeed, that victim could be himself. The oath was a self-curse, uttered in conditional form, operating irrevocably upon occurrence of the condition. Thus the self-curse could be utilized as a means of guaranteeing that a promise would be performed."1

Starting from such a hoary past, oaths have been sworn through the ages and continue to be used around the world, for example, to commit holders of high office and military personnel to loyalty and high standards of conduct. They are testament to the power of the publicly spoken word to bind the speaker to what s/he has affirmed. I will pick oaths of a more recent origin (a mere 2,300 years ago) as a model for designing an oath to be sworn by those entering the HR profession. I am referring to the Hippocratic Oath2 which "has endured not because of its specific guidelines and proscriptions but because it represents one’s commitment to the Hippocratic tradition – a tradition based upon sound scientific investigation combined with patient-oriented care."3 Perhaps there can be no better starting point for building an HR credo than to have its foundations rest upon robust behavioural science principles (rather than current fashions or pressures) and an overriding people centricity (instead of sacrificing it at the altar of Mammon or Management).

For HR, an oath of professional conduct could be administered at the time students pass out from an HR post-graduation program. The convocation is perhaps the most convenient vehicle for a collective administration of the oath

Professional Oaths

Before crystallizing the oath that I have proposed below for HR, I reviewed several extant instances, though some of them go by a different nomenclature. Several of these do not meet the three requirements that are necessary for making an effective public avowal and abiding by it. What are these requirements?

In the first place, the oath should be brief to the point of being memorizable. Of course, professional affirmations (such as the Hippocratic oath) can be lengthier than the oaths to high office or bodies like the Boy Scouts, but not by much.

Secondly, these commitments must be general enough to apply to most people and situations faced in these professions. At the same time, they need to be specific enough to proscribe certain actions while enjoining or encouraging others.

Lastly, the oath must indicate, either explicitly or through the sequence it adopts, an order of priority between the stakeholders that are mentioned. Obviously, this applies only in cases where there is more than one stakeholder which, for instance, is not the case when ministers take their oaths. In the absence of such prioritization, it is always possible for practitioners to weasel out of the observance of one injunction by quoting a conflicting demand from another. Of course, this does not mean that practical compromises and trade-offs cannot be made. It’s just that the balance must be weighed in favour of the higher priorities. 

The HR professional's oath

There can be many variations to the oath an HR professional can take. As mentioned earlier, I reviewed several affirmations or codes of conduct used by professional HR bodies and educational institutes. I found none of them fully satisfactory, partly because they didn’t meet one or more of the criteria listed above but even more because their people concerns seemed to be side shows rather than occupying front-centre stage. How does a code add value if it enjoins the taker to do something that is already in her or his annual goal-sheet? I have attempted to remedy these handicaps in the oath I have proposed. I am sure this too can be improved further but I hope it starts a debate on what the unshakable principles to which our profession must be committed should be.

Here is the oath I propose:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I shall treat all the people for whose HR I am responsible (regardless of their level, background, nature of contract and whether I am an internal HR professional or consultant to the organization) as ends in themselves4 and seek to maximize the aggregate happiness of people in the organization as my primary goal.5

I shall live, guard and disseminate the values of the organization as well as a robust code of fairness6 and actively oppose and root out dishonesty, disrespect, discrimination and differentials that are unjustified or excessive. Should it be necessary, I shall sacrifice my career (or consulting assignment) and tenure in defence of these principles. At the same time, I shall adopt the most creative means I can to design work to be intrinsically exciting for all individuals, find ways to allow them to develop to their full potential and act affirmatively for those who are disadvantaged.

I shall go all-out to surpass the expectations of the organization, its top management and my business partners (or clients) to aid in their decision-making about people and to provide them with a skilled, productive and committed workforce that can deliver the firm’s strategic requirements and thus satisfy key stakeholders, including customers and shareholders. Prizing my credibility and the trust I enjoy above all rewards, I shall remain conscious and careful about the means I adopt in attaining organizational and personal goals, avoiding manipulative politicking, sycophancy or misuse of the confidential information I possess and the confidences shared with me.7

I shall not be ashamed to admit my ignorance, seek the guidance of more knowledgeable individuals and learn with humility from whoever can teach me (no matter how junior the person). I shall not forget the debt and respect I owe to those who have taught me and freely pass on the best of my learnings to those who work with me as well as through professional bodies, educational institutes or other means of dissemination. I shall continue the process of learning as well as developing myself and others throughout my professional career. 

I shall retain a scientific temper towards my discipline and tailor innovative and appropriate solutions for the organization’s needs without falling prey to fashions and fads, regardless of how senior a person in the organization or profession champions them.8

I shall maintain a balance between over-hasty decision-making and indecisiveness. When my decisions or recommendations go wrong, I shall own my mistakes at the earliest and seek to learn from them while guiding others to prevent repeating them.

In sum, I shall always try to act so as to preserve the finest traditions of our profession that I have observed in the great HR torchbearers it has been my good fortune to learn from and seek to be a model (even if not on such a lofty scale as these predecessors) for the generations that follow.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy my work and the relations I build throughout my career, be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. 

All effective oaths, whether for high state office, military service or entry to medical practice are administered by a very respected personage in public, at solemn ceremonies held just when the person is about to enter that profession or role

Start at the beginning

Regardless of whether the oath precisely as I have proposed it or some modified variant of it finds general acceptance, the question remains about how it is to be embedded into the psyche of HR practitioners. All effective oaths, whether for high state office, military service or entry to medical practice are administered by a very respected personage in public, at solemn ceremonies held just when the person is about to enter that profession or role. 

For HR too, an oath of professional conduct could be administered at the time students pass out from an HR post-graduation programme. The convocation is perhaps the most convenient vehicle for a collective administration of the oath.

We must remember, however, that a significant proportion of HR practitioners (yours truly included) do not possess a formal qualification in HR. This is where the professional HR associations can play a major role. Most of them have some kind of code which they routinely mumble before their regular meetings. As already mentioned, most of these oaths are inadequate for providing clear guidance in taking real-life decisions and overemphasize business deliverables. To me that is like a Hippocratic oath that put the hospital and its profits rather than the care of the patient first (I know that too happens in the practice of medicine nowadays but surely that is counter to the Hippocratic spirit). I, therefore, feel a common overarching oath that gives pride of place to people should be administered to new members at the time they join or are initiated into any professional HR association. Perhaps, at a future date, HR associations may also consider setting up committees to review cases of complaints against association members who have transgressed the oath in a major way. Even before educational institutes and professional associations gear themselves up to put the oath into place, progressive business enterprises could introduce it as part of their induction for entrants into HR. 

Hippocratic - not hypocritical - Oath

There is a real problem with the idea of an oath for HR professionals and I will not attempt to minimize it. The problem is whether the oath will be credible, particularly to employees9 who are its main object. Admittedly, at least some of us have not set great records of believability and people-centricity. For examples, see the description of 'The Duplicitous Dodger Asterisk' in my earlier column on detestable CHROs.10 The only response I can provide is that that public affirmations (and re-affirmations) of an HR oath are likely to reduce even if it does not eliminate behaviours that lose us employee trust. Once again, I take encouragement from the medical profession. "David Warriner, a clinical fellow at the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, regards the oath as 'a moral compass…It helps you with circumstances you face where you’re not sure what to do,' he says. 'It also gives you a sense of pride and purpose in terms of the wider scope of medical practice and the importance of putting patients at the heart of decisions you make, which we can forget sometimes.' For Warriner, the original oath still resonates, particularly the phrase: 'I will utterly reject harm and mischief…' "11

The solemnly spoken word expressed through a public oath does have an impact on standards the speaker will live up to.

If one of the noblest professions in the world (though it too has its quacks and exploiters) has found it worthwhile to retain such a tradition for well over two millennia, shouldn’t HR at least give it a sincere try? 

References:

1. Helen Silving, The Oath: I, Yale Law Journal, June 1959.

2. Rachel Hajar, The Physician's Oath: Historical Perspectives, Heart Views, 18(4), Oct-Dec 2017.

3. Raphael Hulkower, The History of the Hippocratic Oath: Outdated, Inauthentic, and Yet Still Relevant, The Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine, Vol 25, No 1, 2010.

4. Immanuel Kant, The Moral Law: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Routledge Classics, 2005.

5. Visty Banaji, HR’s Business Should Be Happiness Raising, People Matters, 24th September, 2019.

6. Visty Banaji, Fairness Is Fundamental, NHRD Network Journal, Volume 7, Issue 4, October 2014.

7. Visty Banaji, Is your HR Head a Jerk?- A Taxonomy of HR Asterisks, People Matters, 24th May 2018,

8. Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, People Matters, 23rd March 2017.

9. Susan M Heathfield, Reasons Why Employees Hate HR – What HR Managers Can Learn From Common Employee Gripes, The Balance Careers, Updated 21 April 2019. 

10. Visty Banaji, Is your HR Head a Jerk?- A Taxonomy of HR Asterisks, People Matters, 24th May 2018.

11. Kathy Oxtoby, Is the Hippocratic oath still relevant to practising doctors today?, BMJ, 14 December 2016

Topics: Life @ Work

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