How do you define professionalism in HR?

By Louisa Baczor, CIPD Research Associate

The evolving world of work means HR’s role in organisations is changing, and coming under increasing scrutiny. One memorable headline in the last couple of years was the BBC’s executive pay-out scandal, in which the HR director at the time was criticised for approving controversial redundancy payments. She argued that this had been normal practice at the organisation, and that the decision was a result of huge pressure from the business. Is this an example of good professional behaviour? It depends how you define ‘professionalism’. In HR, the challenge is that there are no standards of what a ‘good’ professional looks like, and best practice is not useful for choosing ‘the right thing to do’ in all contexts.

So what does being professional actually mean? Is it a behaviour, or a status? This is a topic we’re tackling with an ideation on our new community platform. When discussing this with colleagues and external networks, some reflected on their own professionalism as being a result of qualifications and experience, while others described integrity and credibility as being fundamental attributes. The erosion of trust in today’s society following various public scandals has magnified the need for more ethical business. People need to be able to rely on professional expertise and trust professionals to make the right decisions, since they themselves do not have the unique knowledge to check the quality of guidance given by professionals. Having specialist knowledge therefore comes with an element of power, and a moral responsibility to not abuse that power.

Traditionally, the role of professionals was about promoting good for society. Well-established professions such as medicine and law protect their status through a licence to practise – a legal requirement in addition to the relevant qualification - ensuring that professional standards are maintained. But what about younger management professions, where a formal certification is not necessarily required, and where profit maximisation is the end goal? It has become increasingly clear (notably following the banking scandals) that professionals in organisations have an obligation to not only deliver value for shareholders, but to do so in an ethical way, considering the outcomes for people and society.

Being a professional is not just about demonstrating expertise and skills, but knowing how and when to apply that knowledge. For HR, which faces mounting pressure to ensure that the organisation operates in a way that creates ‘shared value’ for all stakeholders, conflicts of interest are routinely experienced. In the case of the BBC, the immediate demands of the business were at odds with the interests of wider stakeholders (public licence-fee payers). Sensitivity to available ethical choices, above and beyond the legal requirements, is what makes professional advice relevant and trustworthy. HR professionals must build their trust and credibility by showing capability and courage to challenge accepted practice, and offer business leaders a range of critical perspectives on how to create sustainable organisational value through people.

This is part of a series of blogs on Profession for the Future. To get involved in the debate use #changingHR on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Or take part in our new community ideation.

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