Does being professionally qualified have a role in 21st century HR?

The CIPD’s a professional body, so I hope you won’t be surprised to know that we spend considerable time and effort asking ourselves what professionalism is, and how it shows its face in 21st century businesses and organisations. 

We often hold our meetings with the CIPD’s council at the Royal College of Physicians. The experience of being in that wonderful building, decorated with antique portraits of doctors through the ages, stimulated many of the questions we’ve been asking: ‘How do professions develop?’ ‘What distinguishes a professional from a person-doing-stuff?’ and ‘At what point does a community truly become identified [by society at large] as a profession?’ And of course we’ve wanted to discover what the attributes of professionals are, and how these attributes distinguish their impact from those of their non-professional counterparts.

Back in the day, a surgeon may have been your local barber, an apothecary would have doled out your valerian and only an extreme oddball would have considered it appropriate to engage a doctor for childbirth. There was no medical profession, just a number of different jobs. Over time, after countless leechings, application of noxious compounds and ‘experimental’ surgery (“your leg hurts, let’s chop it off”); and through technology (print and travel), innovation (scientific advances accompanied by ethical and social questions posed by philosophers and reformers) and the development of social and political will, a profession emerged. By which I mean that a group of practitioners became bound by a common body of knowledge (enabled by technological developments), operated within an ethical code (informed by the intersection between science and philosophy) and were governed in line with these. 

So perhaps looking back, you could make the case that true professions emerge when the social and economic costs of getting it wrong (in this case, mass uncontrollable disease, for example) and the opportunities for getting it right (a healthy and productive labour force, for example) start to come down more in favour of ‘let’s get this right.’

So where does that thinking leave HR? What are the social and economic questions of getting it wrong, and the upsides of getting it right? Well, on face value you might think not much. As somebody said to me the other day “it’s HR, it’s not like anybody dies…” I suppose that’s true if you’re thinking about the consequences of a team’s failing to have hit its deadline for completing performance reviews. 

But thinking a little deeper, what are the social and economic consequences of toxic cultures, poor leadership and management, unfairness, lack of autonomy or control? Think Volkswagen, the financial crisis or endless media reports of damaging work cultures. Or think Rana Plaza or Michael West’s research linking organisation climates with patient mortality. I’m not so convinced that the way we think about how work is designed and organised and the actual experience of doing it, is so far from life and death. 

So what does it take to seize the challenge of real professionalism in HR? To see the huge potential benefits from workforces where well-being and voice are championed alongside delivering innovation and fantastic business results? And to not shy away from the risks of getting it wrong, but to champion these too, hard as that might be? At the CIPD we believe that being professionally accredited is a big part of the answer – qualifications are a great way to acquire the knowledge you need to build a successful career in HR.

But we also believe that professionalism is about more than qualifications alone. Holding yourself to a standard means not only that you’ve acquired relevant knowledge (there’s a lot to learn about human beings and about businesses; neither are particularly straight forward!), but that you keep it up to date and that you abide by a code of ethics that places the esteem of your profession and your behaviour, as being a worthy recipient of that esteem, at its centre. Let’s move on from the idea that “HR is common sense” or “anyone can have a go” to pride in our profession, in its role in championing better work and working lives, in delivering social and economic benefits that are wider than short term organisation goals. 

We’ve been proud to do so at the CIPD for over 100 years, but we know we haven’t got everything right and we know that professions have to evolve to stay relevant. 

If you’re interested in the next evolution of the CIPD’s professional standards, join us in London at a free event on March 29. If you can’t make an event in London but would still like to have your say, email us at and we’ll keep you updated about other opportunities to get involved - both online and in your local area. 

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