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Top 10 HR ethical challenges - guilty or not guilty?

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer April 5, 2023
If your career has stalled or your resume isn’t getting a lot of traction with recruiters, it may not be your fault. It could be a less than stellar HR/Recruiting team that’s stymieing you. Some of their behavior and systems could be unethical.


A number of HR professionals believe that the work they do is fair, humane, objective, etc. But the reality may be a lot less pretty or ethical. Here are ten ethical challenges, including some new-ish items, impacting a number of HR organizations/leaders. How many is your firm guilty of? 

(1) The ‘honey pot’ job listing (Variant #1) – This is a practice where a company/HR/hiring manager places an external job posting wherein the company’s name is not disclosed. The purpose of this ad is to see which current employees might be considering switching jobs when there isn’t really a real position available. The unfortunate employees who do respond will be fired for being ‘disloyal’. The ethical issue here is apparent and the employer will get a highly negative recruiting brand. 

(2) The ‘honey pot’ job listing (Variant #2) – This version has a company keeping old listings active on job boards when the position has already been filled. People spend hours filling out applications, crafting cover letters, etc. when they will never, ever get a response let alone a job offer. This despicable practice only serves to give the appearance that the company is growing and always looking for new talent while the reality is just the opposite. See this Wall Street Journal article that provides considerable detail on this business practice. 

(3) The internal job listing trap – This another variant of the honey pot and is used by unscrupulous managers, and, not always condemned by HR. What happens is that employees are encouraged by HR to review open positions within the firm’s HRMS. But, if an employee does express interest in one of these positions, HR will do nothing to protect an employee if they face retribution from a manager for being ‘disloyal’. (BTW – I heard one example of this just last week from a person who is now leaving this employer). There are two ethical problems here: one rests with the mean-spirited actions of the manager and one from HR for permitting this to occur. 

(4) The poorly configured ATS (Applicant Tracking System) – This should be criminal. When an employer configures an ATS without running some A/B and other tests to ensure that the product is indeed selecting the best and most diverse applicants possible, then they are negligent. HR/Recruiters should review a couple of hundred resumes and applications and identify the top best candidates. It should run these documents through the ATS and see if it produces essentially the same results. If it doesn’t, then the ATS needs to be adjusted.

When HR/Recruiting skips these tests, otherwise highly qualified applicants will not be chosen. ATS technology is far from perfect. I submitted my own resume to one service and it bolloxed a lot of the fields and totally ignored my college education. The ethical problem here: HR/Recruiting hurts the job seeker and its employer in this scenario. The firm is getting sub-optimal or non-diverse candidates and many of the top prospects never have a human being see their application let alone review it. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Note: one major ERP vendor is being sued because of its recruiting/ATS functionality. The plaintiff is alleging that he never got called for an interview after completing between around 80-120 applications on the vendor’s cloud software. The plaintiff is a Person of Color and over 40. Another case involved a specialist HR technology vendor whose software could be used to rank candidates, assess the truthfulness of their answers and more. Software based on imperfect science can be a liability time bomb for employers. 

(5) HR is using AI-powered solutions that it probably doesn’t understand or can’t defend – You wouldn’t give a running chainsaw to a child so why are HR/Recruiting teams using AI-powered tools when they will not know how to get legal, helpful or ethical results? These tools can amplify previously present biases. They can find correlations but not causation. And if HR cannot understand, in detail, how these algorithms work (and the big data behind them), then they will expose their employer to potential litigation. The ethical issue is that better qualified and/or more diverse employees could potentially be overlooked (i.e., denied interview and job opportunities) while less qualified or less diverse jobseekers take those jobs. This is a fairness issue.

6) HR continues to hire record numbers of replacement employees while doing nothing to address the #1 attrition trigger: bad bosses.  No list of ethical HR lapses can miss this one. Bad bosses are behind 50-67% of job departures. As others have noted: “People leave their boss, not their employer”.  But HR analytic tools rarely if ever address this problem. HR must first identify these managerial misfits, understand how they got placed into positions of responsibility, and, rid the company of these culture, productivity and retention killers. The ethical problem is one of willful avoidance or ignorance of the issue.

7) HR classifies groups of workers as ‘salaried’ when they know these people will be required to work large amounts of unpaid overtime.  Anyone in any job could be asked to work some overtime – that’s not the issue. However, when employees are asked to work a significant amount of overtime, repeatedly, for no additional compensation, this is ‘using’ people. Your firm should proudly display what your stated and effective hourly pay rates are based on a 2000-hour work year.

For example, if a job pays $100,000 annually, the stated pay rate displayed on job boards would be $50/hour. But, if people are expected to work an additional 1000 hours per year, then the effective rate is only $33.33/hour ($100,000/3000 total hours worked per year). Employers should be transparent about this in all job descriptions and advertisements. The ethical problem is that employers who abuse salaried employees may not inform them of these unpaid work obligations until after a person has left their prior employer and started work with the less forthcoming employer. 

(8) HR refuses to go after managers that renege on promised promotions, time off or training. Managers might justify this behavior as it could adversely hurt their budget, bonus or some other factor that doesn’t directly concern the employee. This isn’t just a lack of empathy but a sign that any hoped-for improvements in company culture or employee engagement will fail. The worst of these managers do these things because:

  • they help the manager get their bonus, stock options, etc. 
  • they are control freaks
  • they think they can get away with it
  • they need these people to do their job and the manager’s job, too
  • they can’t/won’t plan
  • etc. 

No matter how you slice it, this problem is often not detected by HR as it relies on after-the-fact methods like exit interviews to learn why an employee left. That’s too late and employees won’t likely volunteer the real reasons anyway. The ethical issue is that HR pretends there’s no problem and does nothing to stop these abusers from continuing their awful ways. 

(9) Monitoring employee social media accounts – Possibly the most egregious social media monitoring action occurs when HR fires an employee simply because they indicated that they are open to new job opportunities on LinkedIn. The ethical issue is that curiosity should not be treated like a crime. If a company has great people, leaders, compensation and work environment, why should it act like a paranoid? 

(10) Requiring Non-Competes and Non-Solicitation agreements for too many staff – No one making less than $70,000/year should ever have to hire an employment lawyer to help them understand and negotiate these all-too-common onboarding documents. These one-sided, heavy-handed documents are often overkill for people in non-critical, back office or other roles. And, yet, HR pushes these to ever greater numbers of jobseekers. While the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) may strike down the use of non-competes for all but a few top executive positions, one has to ask why HR/Legal has gotten so paranoid and is the paranoia vs. potential risk ratio out of balance? The ethical issue is that these agreements represent a significant cost issue for those jobseekers who can least afford this.  


HR leaders should always evaluate new and existing business practices as to their fairness, applicability, risk/reward tradeoff, and, how these actions can affect the firm’s recruiting AND employment brands. If your firm is still losing the war for talent, it’s time to be more circumspect and ask what, internally, is going on in your firm that is triggering continued attrition and low employment interest. 

Culture and engagement are two topics that get a lot of attention from HR vendors and HR conference speakers. Unfortunately, the core discussion points are often how some magical mood ring or a change in the company’s logo will magically erase all prior bad behaviors and transport the company and its people to a new nirvana. That’s a fantasy folks and real change comes from doing real work.

To start with, what kind of employment and recruiting brand does your firm desire anyway? 


The image above intentionally juxtaposes the brand you think you have versus what it actually is. Wishful thinking doesn’t count here. In fact, HR should assume the employment/recruitment brand isn’t all that it wishes it to be and start finding where it needs to make changes. 

One big adjustment for HR leaders that’s likely decades overdue in some firms is that HR must stand up to some powerful operational leaders within the firm. Some of them or their lieutenants may need to get booted if they are committing the ethical challenges noted above. If HR won’t surface and deal with these problem people, then the culture problems, low engagement levels and recruiting shortfalls will simply continue. 

The ten ethical issues above are not all-inclusive and aren’t the only ones out there. Other issues that could go on your firm’s top HR ethical challenges might include continuing ageism, offering below poverty level wages, unsafe working conditions, a failure to monitor outsourced worker/work conditions, slow/no progress in supporting a more diverse workforce, etc.  And, of course, there’s the hypocrisy of an employer providing campaign funds to politicians who support social issues that run contrary to the stated HR cultural pillars.  To make meaningful change and progress, one must honestly assess the true state of their firm’s ethical quandaries.   

My take

When it comes to HR ethics and new technology, HR leaders should always question, in detail, any new technology and assess its potential for misuse, discrimination (accidental or intentional), etc. Just because a new technology exists doesn’t necessarily mean that your firm should use it. 

Make no mistake, HR has enormous power to shape people’s careers, their standard of living, their emotional/life balance, and so much more. With that great power though comes great responsibility (apologies to Voltaire, Spiderman, Now might be the time for HR leaders to wield some of this power. 

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