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Why HR must remain an open profession


Richard Donkin applauds the move towards better standards in HR, but warns against professional exclusivity

Will there ever come a time when human resources specialists are required by law to possess a professional qualification? Doctors, dentists, accountants and pharmacists all need one.

Both the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and The Chartered Institute of Management appear to be heading in this direction by consolidating their professional claims with the status of a royal charter. The next step for the CIPD is to secure individual chartered status for its members. It seems that everybody wants letters after their name these days.

But are these trends towards professional exclusivity a good thing? Should an experienced finance director, for example, be debarred from taking the human resources directors job for want of a qualification?

The achievement of charter status in itself is no mean feat since the Privy Council, which has responsibility for the granting of a royal charter, insists that prospective disciplines fulfil certain criteria. Charter status must be shown to be in the public interest, the field of activity covered by the institution must be unique to the profession and three quarters of the membership should be qualified to degree level in a relevant discipline.

There can be no doubting the CIPDs observation that the systematic management of work has become more specialised and professional in the past 50 years. Neither can we question the membership clout of an institute which has 110,000 members today compared with just 4,000 members 50 years ago in its former incarnation as the Institute of Personnel Management.

But we might question the uniqueness of personnel management in the light of increasing devolution to line managers of traditional personnel responsibilities such as pay determination and recruitment. In my last management job I was expected to undertake both of these responsibilities and I dont recall receiving any advice from the HR department. I do recall, however, putting into practice certain HR management techniques such as 360 appraisals and competency-based interviewing. So if general managers are doing these things, what are the personnel people doing?

The big word in HR these days is strategy. The HR professional is expected to think strategically and to influence the success and direction of the enterprise in the use and promotion of various performance management techniques. The degree to which this is being achieved, however, may have less to do with professional status and more to do with job title, according to research by Kim Hoque of Bath University and Mike Noon of De Montfort University, Leicester.

They discovered a discernible difference in the responsibilities of HR managers and personnel managers. Apparently we can no longer dismiss HR and personnel as nothing more than different titles for the same roles. Today the people who call themselves HRspecialists tend to have the bigger jobs, covering a broader range of policies and practices.

The study found that HR specialists were more likely to hold formal, related qualifications than those who called themselves personnel specialists. Moreover, HR people are more likely to be involved in the development of strategic plans which, as a result of their involvement, tend to place a greater emphasis on employee development than those covering workplaces that continue to recognise the personnel function.

The HR professionals therefore really do seem to be making more of a difference, even to the extent that they are enthusiastically devolving their expertise to the line. This appears to be a different kind of professionalism to that of the barrister or the surgeon whose instincts are to preserve their exclusive rights to exercise their discipline.

There may be some HR managers who would want to monopolise their professional expertise but that would be a retrograde step in a free market. Creativity rarely flourishes where work is defined by systems, processes and rules and people management is too important to be undertaken by an exclusive cadre of professionals. Changing a name is one thing, improving standards and qualifications is another and the CIPD is to be congratulated for pursuing such aims. But HR should maintain its position as an open profession.


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times