The HR profession – to be or not to be?

Is HR a profession? By most definitions it qualifies, at best, as a maybe. It has a recognisable business/organisational function. It has recognised industry bodies, recognised standards and qualifications, and it has ‘continuing professional development’. But something rankles.

Messages keep coming out that something is not right. Surveys of chief executives annually rank the HR function bottom. Our client experience suggests that there is still a perception gap with regard to what HR wants to do and what it is asked to do. This is not all HR’s fault, but the only people to put it right are HR professionals.

I am often reminded of Shakespeare’s most quoted reference:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep

The most common interpretation of this passage from Hamlet is one of contemplation of suicide, of inaction or action. Reading the latest surveys about HR professionals, one cannot help alluding to Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The reason why the term ‘professional’ is qualified is that core fundamentals such as employee engagement, talent management, employer brand, and human capital reporting are not sufficiently known in depth. I often hear the defence that these are relatively new concepts, and thus some latitude is required. The very fact these core fundamentals are recent entries into the HR lexicon are indeed evidence that core knowledge underpinning the profession is still being framed – ie, it is not yet a profession, as such, if compared to, say, accounting.

I foresee the HR ‘profession’ dividing into specific subsets, each with their own defined status and accountability. They are along the lines of human capital professional, coaching professional, training/learning professional, and HR administrators. Certain HR director roles will migrate to chief human capital officers (HCOs). The HCO’s professional role will be the highest in terms of depth and breadth.

The terms ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’ will become redundant – you’ll either know your stuff professionally or you won’t. There will be no place for amateurs – not in the professional HR space, anyway. Organisations will send a clear message as to the types of professional or quasi-professional or amateur they want.

Being in HR, one question will continue to dominate: how does my role add value? If you can’t answer the question, you’d better start worrying. No Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development qualification will act as a ‘get out of jail free card’.

Let me add further weight. Human capital measurement is a misunderstood subject. Without measurement, HR can never be strategic – which puts a big lid on opportunity. Human capital measurement is really about the soul of HR professionals and their functions. Why? Because it is so much more than just metrics. It is about understanding, definition, learning, debate, clarity, performance, expertise and, ultimately, value contribution.

For example, it is impossible to define concepts such as employee engagement, talent management, workforce intelligence, training impact or indeed the contribution of human capital management without measurement. And yet again too many in HR continue to focus on ‘fuzzy process’ at the expense of deploying more scientific content resulting in poor or inadequate organisational applications.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” is another quote from Hamlet that has resonance right now.

There is already a debate over the ‘closed shop’ nature of the HR profession. To understand this, one has to look at the players involved and ask who benefits from the status quo? Something is indeed rotten, if not rotting.

By Nicholas Higgins, chief executive, Valuentis


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