I started by asking the group how many were or had worked in HR. Just one hand was raised from a group of close to 40. I then asked how many intended, at some point in their career, to work in HR and not one hand was raised! This was really disappointing as I thought the HR industry had made real progress and finally positioned itself as a career of choice.
It got me thinking, what do people actually think of HR? I started to ask friends, family and acquaintances. Yet again the answers were predominately negative with answers ranging from ‘they write polices and then expect managers to implement them’, to ‘they say it’s about developing employees but they don't ever follow through’. So if you believe, as I do, that great HR leads to superior organisational performance and a better working experience, then as a profession we have a real perception problem.
Rather than give up, I thought I would ask some of my HR friends why they chose to work in the industry. A few made well-informed choices at school or university, but the vast majority discovered the opportunity as I did, when already in work. The really good news was that nearly all were positive about HR and wouldn't have chosen to do anything else if given the choice again. So the people in the profession love it and wouldn't do anything else.
My final bit of 'let’s be honest' random research was to talk to three current CEOs from different organisations. They were all huge advocates of what great HR was doing for their business. They defined the value and spoke highly of their HR directors and the role they play in addressing important strategic issues.
So why is any of this important? Let’s go back to the group of 40 MBA students. If we had got our message across about HR then shouldn't at least 10% or 25% of these bright young managers want to work in HR?
It seems to me that we need to do two things. Firstly, we need to create a great employer brand for the HR profession. We need to be talking to young people while they are still at school about the difference they can make to people’s lives and organisations by becoming an HR professional. I believe we should strive to attract the brightest and best to HR.
Only by recruiting real talent can we elevate the impact we make. If we are successful at attracting the people who wouldn't normally end up in HR, the profession has more capability and will (over time) innovate, challenge and make a bigger impact collectively.
The second point is we need to communicate internally to our managers and employees what it means to work in HR and seek to bring in more high quality people who are already in work but not in HR.
The CIPD are making real progress on promoting the profession, but perhaps a defined brand with key messages for specific audiences would help galvanise senior HR practitioners to spread the word.
Peter Cheese, the CIPD’s CEO, said recently there has never been a better time to be in HR, and he is right. However, if we don't up our game and attract new talent I think we will still be debating among ourselves whether HR should be at the top table in 25 years’ time.
Kevin Green is the CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation