Some barriers to HR becoming a strategic business partner

September 2010

Dear clients,

Most people agree that applying ethics in business makes

good sense. Henry Posters captures this well by stating

that a business that behaves ethically induces other

business associates to behave ethically as well. If a

company exercises particular care in meeting all

responsibilities to employees, customers and suppliers it

usually is rewarded with a high degree of loyalty, honesty, quality and productivity. When individuals operate with a

sense of confidence regarding the ethical soundness of their position, their mind and energies are freed for maximum

productivity and creativity. On the other hand, when

practising unethical behaviour, the individual finds it

necessary to engage in exhausting subterfuge, resulting in diminished effectiveness and reduced success.

A recent survey by Klaus and Associates showed that

although 87% of respondents believe that a lack of ethics

led to the current economic disaster, there’s hope for the future as a reassuring 80% think that ethics can be taught. Sixty-seven percent of the survey respondents pointed a

finger at the profit-hungry business environment as a contributing factor to a rise in unethical behavior, with

59% agreeing that shady conduct in the workplace derives

more from company culture than from individual

employees. It is therefore imperative for organisations to promote an ethical culture on a company-wide scale.

In this edition of the LeMaSa Chronicle we look at the

elements that should be included in an ethics training programme.


Sandra Schlebusch

Some barriers to HR becoming a strategic business partner
Some barriers to HR becoming a strategic business partner

Many organisations have or would like to move the Human Resources (HR) function from doing mainly transactional work to becoming a strategic business partner. The first step is usually to restructure the HR department to create the HR Business Partner Role, Shared Services to take care of the transactional issues and Centres of Expertise to deliver specialised HR services. Most organisations are howeve r experiencing difficulty in implementing this type of structure. The role of the Strategic HR Business partner is particularly problematic.

The Strategic HR business partner’s role is often not redesigned to reflect the new expectations and the person is often swamped in even more transactional work. This is also often a result of the lack of mapping out the HR process for the new situation, causing role unclarity between the HR Business Partner, Shared Service Centre and Centres of Expertise. Line Managers are also not taken onboard with regards to the change in HR’s role and often show resistance or lack of understanding as to what can now be expected from HR.

Another barrier is that HR staff members are not being trained to be effective in the new role as HR business partner. This role can be quite complex when looking at the variety of roles to be played. These roles can be seen in the strategic HR competency model as described in the fifth round of the Human Resource Competency Study (HRCS) in 2007 on the Society for Human Resources Management’s website ( and the book “HR Competencies: Mastery at the intersection of people and business” by Ulrich and others in 2008.

< span lan g=EN-US style='font-size:9.0pt'>Research conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council (Building Next Generation HR-Line Partnerships, 2008) also revealed that the most important attributes affecting the Strategic HR Business Partner’s strategic role effectiveness are “The Person” and “The Design of the Job,” not the “HR Function Structure and Budget.” A number of factors at the individual level — background, skill set, development experiences — have the largest aggregate impact on the effectiveness of the HRBP.

It is clear that HR transformation should be planned and implemented through a rigorous change management process.

Can Ethics be taught and can ethics be learned?
Ethics comes from the Greek word ethikos, meaning "arising from habit." Ethics is a habitual way of behaving. In their efforts to build an environment that is conducive to making ethics a habitual way of behaving most organisations rely on ethics training as an important part of the initiative. The age-old question is however – can ethics be taught? This is not a new question and almost 2 500 years ago, the philosopher Socrates debated the question with his fellow Athenians. Socrates' position was clear: Ethics consists of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge can be taught and people can learn to behave ethically. Research to Support that Ethics can be Taught Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, SJ, and Michael J Meyer in an online article ( summarise recent findings that support the notion that ethics can and should be taught. These findings are: · Dramatic changes occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s in terms of the basic problem-solving strategies they use to deal with ethical issues. · These changes are linked to fundamental changes in how a person perceives society and his or her role in society. · The extent to which change occurs is associated with the number of years of formal education (college or professional school). · Deliberate educational attempts (formal curriculum) to influence awareness of moral problems and to influence the reasoning or judgement process have been demonstrated to be effective. · Studies indicate that a person's behaviour is influenced by his or her moral perception and moral judgements · A person's ability to deal with moral issues is not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages. Ethics Training How do organisations then structure the ethics training to ensure maximum learning? Dale Curry ( describes research by Baldwin and Ford (1988) that presents a useful framework for examining transfer of learning that can help to promote ethical competence. They emphasize the importance of individual trainee characteristics, the work environment, and the training design. Effective interventions to promote ethical practice on-the-job will incorporate individual and organizational / environmental elements into the training design. Low Road Transfer Some transfer of training occurs via incremental learning involving varied and extensive practice that gradually extends to ever-widening situations. The learner may “overlearn” certain crucial ethical content to the extent that it is displayed almost “automatically” when cued by the appropriate ethical situation. This is called “low road transfer” (Salomon and Perkin, 1989). Curry ( highlights that this means that the training designer should: · Identify concrete ethical problem solving skills that can be practised in the training and work environments. Practise the demonstration of ethical problem solving with real case scenarios (or as close to real as possible). Learners need the opportunity to demonstrate skills and not just discuss ethical cases. · Identify and practice “key” ethical skills to the level of automaticity. Some behaviours can be “overlearned” to the extent that a worker routinely employs them with little conscious effort. · Practice with application in mind. Make connections between the learning and doing situations. For example, ask a learner to adapt a role play to make it as similar as possible to a typical work situation. You may ask them to choose another role player that most reminds them of someone in their work situation. · Use instructional strategies that closely approximate the ethical assessment, decision making, and implementation process that will occur on the job. For example, a worker may rehearse in training a consultation session regarding an ethical issue with a supervisor or colleague. · Increase the types of ethical practice scenarios to include increasingly ever-widening situations. This may involve the use of a variety of individuals and settings that workers encounter. Since the amount of time permitted in training is limited, a practice and participant feedback plan must be developed and implemented that extends beyond the training setting. · Use distributed practice with gradual removal of practice. Integrate the practice into the work environment. This may involve the use of trainers and coaches in team meetings, etc. Encourage supervisors and others within the work environment to promote ethical practice through discussion and ethical problem solving in team meetings. High Road Transfer While low road transfer strategies encourage the learning of key skills to the level of automaticity (to the extent that a behaviour occurs almost automatically, with little conscious effort), high road transfer involves very deliberate, conscious (mindful) thinking about the learning and implementation of an ethical skill. This is called “High Road transfer” (Salomon and Perkins 1989). High road transfer also involves the use of abstract principles (e.g., rules, labels, prototypes, schematic patterns). Transfer occurs by purposefully using general rules or principles that underlie the subject matter. A basic assumption behind the development of ethical codes is that individuals will recognize and transfer the appropriate general ethical principle to the specific situation / case in the actual practice situation. This is also the concept behind the use of ethical assessment and decision making models. Curry ( identifies the following implications for transfer of ethics learning based on the high road approach: · Train underlying principles of ethical practice that transcend context. Help learners recognize these underlying ethical principles (mindful abstraction). · Train ethical assessment and decision making strategies that can be used with many different types of ethical problems. · Use parallel processing. For example, have the learners examine how the trainer-trainee, the supervisor-supervisee relationships are similar regarding the ethical use of power. · Use a variety of case examples for each ethical principle to strengthen a learner’s understanding of the principles. · Provide examples of when an ethical principle applies and when not. · Help learners cognitively store ethical information with retrieval in mind. Identify situations where ethical problems are likely to occur. Help learners identify cues that will signal the worker that an ethical problem may exist. · Teach meta-cognitive skills. Help the training participants learn how to learn and apply application principles regarding ethics. Help them learn to use the ethical codes to monitor and guide their practice. For example, provide suggestions and application aides that can serve as reminders to workers on the job that a case situation may have ethical implications similar to one that was previously discussed in training. · Help participants plan for application of learning. Help them think about how to overcome barriers to application as well as strategies to prevent or reverse the process of backsliding into old habits. Training Implications Curry ( concludes in his article that to effectively promote the application of ethics learning in organisational settings, training and development professionals will need to incorporate both low and high road transfer approaches. In addition, interventions will need to extend beyond the “classroom” setting and involve key persons within the transfer milieu.