Human Resource Development Quarterly, No. 2, 2001

Human Resource Development Quarterly, No. 2, 2001

by Ronald L. Jacobs

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Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
Publication date:
J-B HRDQ Single Issue Human Resource Development Qarterly Series, #2
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.34(d)

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Ethical Dilemmas and
the Many Hats of HRD

At the 2001 Conference of the Academy of Human Resource Development, held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I chose to focus my presidential address on "The Many Hats of HRD." I took my inspiration from the famous Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat(Geisel, 1957). After acknowledging what usually happens at such a conference (" We just sat, sat, sat, sat, sat!"—from The Cat in the Hat), I began to don one hat after another (of the dozens that had accumulated in our basement—my wife is a devotee of Halloween) to illustrate the many hats we are asked to wear as HRD professionals. The favorite of the audience seemed to be the spider hat, about which my comment was, "I don't really know what role this represents for HRD, but what I do know is that it has six legs, three more than the famous stool model with which we are all familiar," making reference, of course, to Swanson's three-legged stool (1995).

But that's not what this editorial is about. Rather, it speaks to the ethical dilemmas that HRD professionals confront because of the many hats that we are asked to wear. Among the many professional hats that I have acquired over the years is a degree in divinity that included several courses in ethics. I have had an interest in ethics for a long time and have taught courses and done research in business ethics over a large part of my professional career. I have been pleased to see a resurgence in interest in ethical matters relating to human resource development. The Organization Development Institute developed its code of ethics manyyears ago (the twenty-second revision was done in 1991). Recently, the Academy of Human Resource Development developed its own set of guidelines (1999). To make the guidelines more concrete, the first issue of 2001 of Advances in Developing Human Resources(Aragon and Hatcher, 2001) was devoted to ethics case studies related to the Academy's guidelines. Human Resource Development International,in its first issue of 2001, included an article with cases containing ethical dilemmas in doing international research (McLean, 2001). A publication of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) includes a chapter on ethics (McLean and DeVogel, in press). A review of the proceedings of the Academy reveals a large number of papers related either to ethics or to spirituality in the workplace, each often used in some ways to represent the other in language that is acceptable to people for whom the alternative might not be.

Why all this interest? The cynic, of course, could argue, with some validity, that the interest in ethics stems from a lack of ethical behavior in the field. When ethical behavior prevails, then there is no interest in or need for an emphasis on ethics, codes of ethics, and ethical guidelines. Such an emphasis usually emerges when a group finds that commonly accepted and expected behaviors are being violated. Thus, sexual harassment and diversity training have emerged during times when litigation has made it unwise for companies to ignore the rapidly increasing number of such situations, which make them vulnerable to lawsuits. Yet if people had behaved ethically all along, it would have been clear, without any litigation, that sexual harassment and discrimination are unacceptable.

One could also argue that the growing number of reminders about ethical behavior in the profession is a proactive response to a vision that HRD professionals have for a field that is free of unethical behavior. It is an argument that ethics is not simply a matter of economics, avoiding lawsuits, or improving the bottom line. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that ethical behavior, in and of itself, is desirable.

Of course, the difficulty that is always encountered when discussing ethics is how ethical behavior should be defined. The Golden Rule, mentioned in most religious writings, says something to the effect that we should "do unto others as we would have them do unto us." This is, however, an ethnocentric perspective. I have suggested that the Golden Rule and similar injunctions might better read, "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." The potential ethnocentricity of ethics is one of the motives for developing codes of ethics or ethical guidelines that are supported by a professional group that, supposedly, represents a broad base of values and can therefore move beyond ethnocentrism. The difficulty, however, as highlighted by DeVogel, Sullivan, McLean, and Rothwell (1995), is that OD professionals, at least, are either unaware of such statements or, even if they are aware of them, do not use them when facing situations that require decision making that has ethical implications.

So what is to be done? One of the first steps is awareness. Because of the mere fact of the many HRD publications currently dealing with the issue, professionals must at least realize that ethics is seen to be important in their field. Of course, there is no way to ensure that they read these publications or put what they say into practice. Discussion of topics related to ethics at local, regional, national, and international conferences is also helpful, though only a small percentage of practitioners attend such conferences.

But more can be done. The OD Institute requires that the OD code of ethics be included in course work by institutions that it accredits. In our own course work, especially in OD, we include cases that require ethical decision making. But we could do still more. Our efforts to offer a course during summer 2000 came to naught when the course was cancelled because of low enrollment!

Still more is needed. Perhaps those of us who write articles and report on our research in journals, such as HRDQ,need to be aware of the ethical implications of our research and writing, and make explicit not only how our research affects practice but also how it can be implemented in such a way as to encourage ethical behavior in the field. Those who review articles for inclusion in refereed journals or for refereed conferences need to use ethics as one of the criteria for acceptance.

Many research questions need to be addressed. Why do practitioners not pay more attention to the work on ethics done by our professional organizations? What are the important areas of decision making that are ethically difficult for HRD practitioners? How do the codes or guidelines that have been developed by professional organizations apply across cultural groups? Are there differences in how academics, practitioners, consultants, and students view ethical behavior? Which factors encourage unethical behavior in the field?

I hope that the recent spate of publications on ethics in the field is just the beginning. I hope that we will see an increasing number of articles on ethics in this journal, in other journals, and in the books used in the field. But even more important, I hope that we will see increasingly ethical behavior among HRD professionals.


h to bring conflicts to a sound resolution, like all humans, wish to succeed, to be proven correct, just, righteous. To be confronted by one's biases can and often does evoke mere defensiveness, feigned agreement, or withdrawal, rather than an honest appraisal of the multiple realities present in a situation.

My final premise is that an unacknowledged overemphasis on dominance power leads to the persistent creation of unacknowledged uneven tables. Dominance power by its very nature assumes that some persons will dominate others. To the degree that such relationships are socially structured and sanctioned, they will be created, recreated, and reinforced during conflict resolution negotiations. Hence, conflict resolution efforts may actually serve to exacerbate conflict, supporting socially structured and sanctioned inequities based on dominance power. I believe that revealing these distortions and misconceptions is meritorious, even if not initially welcome.

One way of revealing these is to describe how people accommodate such distortions and misconceptions in ways that are either constructive or harmful. The latter unveil the costs of ignoring the problem and demonstrate how conflict resolution efforts may actually increase conflict. The former provide some avenues of exploration that may reveal a potential path out of a potential morass. This book, which emerges from the premises I have just recorded, is an attempt to engage in a revealing dialogue of this nature.

Revisiting the Premises

In preparing the second edition of this book, I revisited and reflected upon these premises. Several years of teaching and training others have actually intensified my convictions about the premises. Indeed, it seems sometimes that they were actually understated. In a culture where "power" tends to mean "power to control others," imagining other types of power seems elusive. Understanding the concept of dominance power is easy; catching oneself perpetuating it as a behavior pattern is more difficult.

I have therefore searched for mechanisms to help people imagine other kinds of power. I have further explored and refined my own definition, describing power as "life energy" in an effort to focus on the primary meaning of power: self-agency, the capacity to act, to have an influence.

What has startled me is the degree to which many people cling to a single concept of power, the one that focuses on "control over others." What is perhaps more sobering is the frequent assumption that such dominance power is actually a type of entitlement, accompanied by intense emotion when threats to this control present themselves. The response is often attacking, full of rage, sometimes vengeful. This too has become part of my dialogue with others, and in the years since initial publication of this book I have learned that open discussion about the loss of dominance power as entitlement can evoke far more destructive emotions than I might originally have indicated.

I say this primarily in the interest of honesty. Articulating the nature of uneven tables for persons who not only are unaware of their nature, but also are interested in never facing their impact has proven instructive. I think I better understand the persistence of sustaining uneven tables, not merely as habit but also as vested interest. It is one thing to negotiate at an uneven table; it is quite another to publicly reveal its nature to persons who believe themselves entitled to maintain inequity. My experiences have thus led to the addition of some heretofore unstated premises.

Uneven tables often exist because individuals have very personal vested interests in creating and sustaining them, and attach these interests to perceptions of personal entitlement. When this is the case, unveiling deliberate inequity can evoke persistent and sometimes volatile interpersonal violence. It probably needs to be said, even though it doesn't feel like good news. Perhaps it is not only a premise, but also a caveat.

Fear of this potential interpersonal violence can motivate disadvantaged persons at the uneven table to prefer conflict avoidance, to consent to compromise and adaptation, even when it is contrary to their own best interests and the interests of others. They can also align themselves with those claiming entitlement, join forces with them in one fashion or another, and then seek to sustain the status quo. This complicates the work of persons at an uneven table who have seated themselves in the interest of creative conflict resolution. This too is both premise and caveat.

Perceived entitlement counts, especially when it is threatened.

Acknowledging the Lenses

In 1994, I noted that in addition to these premises, my vantage point as the author of this book is also shaped by who I am, by my specific traits and characteristics. Several of these are germane when one considers negotiating at uneven tables, when one acknowledges the overattention in this country to dominance power, and when one attempts to make distinctions between constructive and harmful models of conflict resolution. My vantage point is that of a person who has been on "both sides" of the imbalanced distribution of dominance power, one who has made the errors of both sides, and one who has had the opportunity to experience and value the strengths and opportunities of both sides.

I am a person with European-American, Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman roots raised in a culture dominated by these exact perspectives and values. They are familiar to me, and I grew up assuming not only that they were the right ones, but that they were virtually the only ones, all others being distortions or errors. More specifically, my roots are German American, Roman Catholic, and Midwestern United States. Even writing this makes me feel sort of stereotypically wholesome, like homemade bread and the Fourth of July.

I am also a woman, raised in a culture dominated by values of forced gender structuring, where being a woman was largely that which was not being a man. I was taught that a man was a superior entity in what the culture valued most: agency and control. My life experiences and education have been largely dominated by masculine perspectives— which are rarely called that. I am now fifty-eight years old. During my lifetime, I have experienced cataclysmic changes about what it means to be a woman in the United States, and therefore inevitably in what it means to be a man. These changes seem to me to have been, until recently, more actively initiated by women than by men.

I am a professional academic, enjoying all the status and privileges awarded the scholar in U.S. society. I have significant opportunities to know, learn, and discover and view these as beneficial and personally enriching. I take great pleasure in both the teaching and the creating elements of academe and believe I am involved in worthwhile work.

I am a professional nurse, embracing membership in one of the most genderstructured, systematically exploited, and oppressed occupational groups in the United States. I believe nurses engage in one of the most profound services given to humans. I take enormous pride in knowing I am a member of this cadre of powerful, caring persons who truly make a difference in the quality and meaning of human existence. I also believe few occupational groups have experienced so much institutionalized and socially sanctioned injustice.

The years between the first and second editions of this book have seen cataclysmic change in health care in the United States. As I am writing, the most serious nursing shortage in my career is unfolding. Current studies demonstrate that the "downsizing" of hospitals during the 1990s has shortened patient length of stay, keeping only the very sick as patients, while concurrently introducing massive layoffs of the registered nurses who care for these very sick patients. This process, variously described as the reengineering or redesign of health care, purported to improve the health care delivery system. The resultant layoffs, a cost-saving "quick fix" often neglectful of the impact on the well-being of patients, created even more untenable working conditions for the nurses who remained. Many nurses, both those who were retained and those who were not, simply left nursing.

Recently, the impact this "reduction in force" had in terms of errors, accidents, and harm to patients has been documented. Hospitals simply have too few professional nurses, with staffing often well below safety levels. Increasingly, patients cannot be admitted to hospitals because there are no nurses to care for them. The result is poorer, less safe, and often more insensitive patient care. Fewer people wish to be nurses, looking at the career patterns that seem inevitable: "mandatory" overtime, excessive workloads, undervaluation of contribution, chronic discounting of expertise, inadequate pay for responsibilities assumed, limited job satisfiers. Nurses who were "downsized out" are certainly not interested in returning to this chaos. The table has become more uneven than it was in 1994.

I note this because it has increased my sense of urgency about what I have to say here. It is an urgency that will increasingly be experienced by every person who is hospitalized in the United States. This "update" seems noteworthy.

As my comments indicate, the conflicts in these "givens" of my life are substantial, but the conflicts themselves have taught me a great deal, often through trial and error, with more mistakes than I can at this point chronicle. I have learned to value these conflicts, however, because they have called forth in me a commitment to courage, self-honesty, and learning that I might not have acquired without the conflicts. They have sometimes fatigued me but have not permitted me to indulge in prolonged periods of sloth. They have stretched and thus enriched me— even the ones that enraged or frustrated me the most. And they have given me opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment that I might not have known had I lived a more naturally harmonious set of givens.

Thus, my vantage point in writing this book is that of a person awarded some privileges due to my membership in dominant cultures and groups, and not awarded some privileges due to my lack of membership in dominant cultures and groups. What living fifty-eight years has taught me is that both memberships have been invaluable, and both, ultimately, in many respects, are advantageous. What teaching others about this dual membership has taught me is that awareness comes slowly, often painfully, sometimes angrily. For many it has seemed like a flowering, a quantum leap of sorts, a thing of great beauty and joy. For some, it is a terror-filled discovery. For a few, it is a cause for rage.

It has become apparent to me that this dual membership has distinct advantages and makes me both intellectually and operationally bimodal, bilingual, and bifocal. Over time, I have learned that it has eventually led more often to being multimodal, multilingual, and multifocal. Once one is divested of the illusion of a belief in "the only right way," the doors open to a myriad of ways, each with some truth and some distortion, all enabling clarity. Thus, while there are substantive discomforts in dual memberships, there are also remarkable gains in terms of insight, education, opportunity, and personal growth.

Over time, this has developed in me a greater facility in seeing many sides of an issue. Indeed, eventually it has led me to be unable to do otherwise in the interest of personal integrity. It also makes it much harder for me to believe that I have the right answer, or that anyone else does. Finding meaning, discovering that which is of worth, becomes a searching process where everyone's help is welcome. Staying in dialogues becomes a priority.

This vantage point is obviously only one version of dual membership. It is, like most others, if explored creatively, useful. It can further dialogues across historically untraversed chasms between individuals and groups. Years of practical experience, both successes and failures, can refine these skills. I have thus learned not only what works but what doesn't work. This book is an attempt to share what these diverse experiences have taught me, to make them useful to others confronting the anomalous situation of being equal and unequal at the same time. It is my personal belief that this includes everyone.

Further Refining My Lenses

When I first wrote about uneven tables, I was struggling to describe experiences that were as real to me as my hands, yet often denied as real by others. I have since had hundreds of dialogues that assure me many share these experiences. This validation has been very positive for me, and I acknowledge this with gratitude.

I have also learned that my acknowledgment of the subtle impact of uneven tables on conflict resolution efforts seems congruent with some larger set of global shifts toward heightened communal consciousness, and it encourages me to have so many companions on the journey. These like-minded persons are a balm to me, as I try to live out my understanding of the challenge of intellectual integrity. I am grateful for their presence in my life.

Conversely, I am increasingly sobered by the violence, rage, and sense of impotence that seems to take possession of persons habituated to the advantages of uneven tables when that advantage diminishes. As these shifts continue, those with a deep sense of entitlement seem increasingly troubled. It warrants mentioning.

Observing persons who have a sense of entitlement has led me to explore some further dimensions of this topic that shed light on the impact on the entitled facing the loss of entitlement. These topics include the high cost of oppression for the oppressor, the depth of what I call the "victim-think" of the oppressed, the intensity of attachment to the secondary gains of conflict avoidance, and the impact of the shadow side of human personalities when that shadow is denied and projected onto others.

Perhaps for me the most interesting of these new explorations focuses on those persons at uneven tables who, to deal with their disadvantage, have embraced the values and behaviors of the advantaged in a derivative and imitative fashion. The "false entitlement" assumptions attached to such imitation of oppressors can make these persons even more violently opposed to change than the original oppressors were.

These added lenses have led me to begin to write a second book that builds on but goes beyond this one. It seemed important here to acknowledge that these additional lenses frame the pictures I now study and call my life, and the changes I have made in the second edition of this book.

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