Professional identity may hold the key to rebuilding trust in organisations

CIPD research explores how HR professionals see themselves at work and the impact this has on ethical decision-making

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New research from the CIPD suggests that increasing HR practitioners’ sense of professional identity could help to close the gap between ambition and practice when it comes to championing ethical decision making at work. The report ‘HR professionalism: what do we stand for?’ compares the views of around 3,000 HR practitioners, teachers and IT practitioners and analyses the findings alongside insights from an in-depth review of existing studies on professional identity. 

While the majority (69%) of HR professionals said they feel empowered to challenge decisions by senior leaders (compared to 43% of IT professionals and 35% of teachers), they also reported that they identify more strongly with their organisation than they do with their profession. 

For example, they find it easier to identify with colleagues in their organisation than they do with other HR professionals, and feel that the challenges faced by their organisations affect them more personally than those faced by the wider profession. 

Research by Hugh and Sally Gunz in 2007 found that our sense of identity plays a major role in how we make decisions. This could therefore explain why previous CIPD research on professional principles found that when faced with difficult decisions at work, HR professionals often prioritise business needs over ethical principles. While both studies show that HR practitioners do have strong moral values and see their role as ‘ethical stewards’ in challenging unethical organisational practice, it seems they do not always follow through on their actions. 

The CIPD’s new report suggests that an increased level of perceived authority to challenge organisational decisions could help HR practitioners overcome this gap between ambition and practice.  However, the long established pressure for HR to align with business strategy and organisational goals has tended to take precedence over one of the key attributes of being a professional – which is having standards that go beyond (and may override) those of the organisation and feeling able to operate as independent professionals with the power to challenge organisations’ decisions when they violate ethical values.  

In a world of mistrust, an essential characteristic of being a professional is moral integrity. It’s important that professions maintain strong ethical values so that society can trust members of that profession to apply their knowledge and expertise responsibly and fairly. In other words, the superior knowledge that comes with being a professional also comes with the responsibility to use that knowledge ethically. A stronger sense of professional identity is therefore crucial to building HR’s credibility, influence and impact on work and working lives.  Since they’re responsible for making decisions that affect workers’ lives, it’s important that HR practitioners feel able to stand up for the rights and needs of human beings, rather than focusing solely on helping an organisation meet its financial goals.

The report raises questions about the implications for the way in which HR jobs are designed, the types of behaviours that are rewarded, and the types of organisational structures that can help improve HR’s perceived authority and enable individuals to raise concerns about ethical practice. But it also concludes that having a clear purpose and embedding moral values in our day-to-day work can help build professional identity. And, in today’s transient labour market, where it’s increasingly rare for a professional to work for a single organisation for long periods of their career a sense of professional identity may become even more important. 

As the professional body for HR and people development, the CIPD is responsible for setting clear expectations about the role of HR, equipping practitioners with a set of ethical guidelines that clearly define what the profession stands for, and embedding this into training, qualifications and CPD provisions. The findings of this latest research will therefore feed into the development of the CIPD’s Professional Standards Framework and ensure that the HR profession of the future is equipped to continue championing better work and working lives as the world of work evolves.

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