HR, L&D, Personnel, People, Workforce Development etc. etc. and Professionalism

Above, in the title of this blog is what I consider to be our fundamental issue. What are we as a profession? What are we all about? What makes us distinct from the other accepted business/corporate functions like Finance, and, and, well hang on. How distinct are the other professions that come to mind? And do they all have a clearly recognised scope of things that they do and a professional code of conduct/ethics that anyone you asked on the street could identify in some way? Probably not. Except maybe law and medicine, where you have to be qualified to practice, and everybody knows this.

Something I have often said, sometimes in frustration, sometimes to illustrate my point simply, is "Would you have a non-accountant heading up Finance? No? So why, in a business where 70% ish of your spend is on your people, on whom you rely totally to deliver your service, would you not have a qualified HR professional leading HR?" This is where this blog could get very messy and disorganised, so I’m going to delve into a little bit of biography. And I’m going to add that one of the best HR Managers who ever worked in one of my teams was not CIPD qualified…

So here I plunge, hot on the heels of Gary Cookson’s excellent blog: Because Professionalism Matters, the CIPD’s current consultation on the Future of the Profession: CIPD Future Profession

I have been working in public services for 30 years, since graduating in 1987, mostly NHS, the probation service (public, then in one of the privatised companies) and now in the charity sector. All of the organisations I have worked for have provided essential public services for people when they are at their most vulnerable, and they have all spent approx. 70% of budget on their workforce. I wasn’t always in HR. I started in administrative and junior managerial roles, and was an operational manager in an NHS Mental Health Trust for several years. Here I was the typical ‘jam in the sandwich’ middle manager - managing several wards and community teams (and therefore managing people with different professional backgrounds) – getting the grief from above and below, with no practical management training. Well, I had an Institute of Health Services Diploma, which was great for theory (Taylorism etc.), history of NHS, Social Policy etc. But practical? How to be a manager holding challenging conversations? No. (How to write a meeting agenda, a set of minutes and a professional report? Yes. Actually, quite useful – these seem to be amazingly lost skills… but enough of that.)

That experience (much of it learning how not to do things) has stood me in good stead. From 1999, I took on what started out as a secondment in Management Development, to manage NHS Management Graduate Trainees in the former Trent Region. I’ve mentioned this in blogs before. I loved that job, and here my passion for seeing people really develop into their roles and become competent, considerate and confident decision makers really took hold. I was also lucky enough to be supported to do my Masters at Sheffield Hallam, where I met David Hayden, who was on the same course. (By the way, my main aim was to gain a Masters – CIPD membership was secondary then.) We were lucky enough to be tutored by the inestimable Prof David Megginson in Year 2, as we opted for Human Resources Development, and he was very progressive in what he taught, no, shared and showed us. Why did I choose HRD, and not HRM? Well, obviously it was a good fit with my role at the time, but there was much more to it than that.

Here we go (gulps.) On HR Management modules, mention was made quite often of the ‘seat at the table’. Let’s groan collectively for a few moments…. Even then, I found this really frustrating, all this navel gazing. And, whilst I find risk management and application of case law in complex HR case management interesting, I had almost zero interest in learning employment law by rote so I could win that prized ‘seat at the table’. What I did know, was that I needed to know what relevant law existed and where to find it so I could check it out, consider how/if it applied, and advise using this, common sense (I’ll come back to that) and my business knowledge. Clearly not everybody had this approach. Along my career, I have met many HR professionals (including director level) who can quote the exact law, date, paragraph and section of every bit of legislation, ET, EAT decision etc. and who have littered policies with this, and used it in discussion to blind others with ‘science’, scare them witless about Employment Tribunal prospects, and make themselves ‘look good’ or a mixture of all three. My eyes are rolling as I write this.

So where do we go from here? I think this prescriptive, legalistic and let’s face it, quite administrative approach to HR, has not helped us much. In the worst cases, it’s like some HR professionals have been operating like lower order employment lawyers – hiding behind the law (or, in the very worst cases, what the law was when they qualified), legalese and hefty policies. No wonder HR has often not been valued as highly as some other corporate professions. A narrow interpretation. Glorified admin. Why have HR? Why not just have a monthly retainer with an employment law firm? Yet, the other professions have their fair share of admin as well: accounts payable, data entry, database management etc. So why is it so often that HR has been, and in many places still is, seen as an administrative function? (I’m not taking the gender route here, though I could…)

Two things here. One: many managers lack confidence to make difficult decisions regarding people issues (remember my ‘grief from above and below’ comment above.) Two: many managers and senior ones in particular think they are better ‘people persons’ than they actually are… What a conundrum.
So, finally, the current CIPD consultation. As a huge advocate of the CIPD, who has volunteered for various CIPD activities, I’m really pleased to see this and I was very happy to go to the Barbican a few weeks ago to participate directly. I think the consultation is absolutely genuine, and hope that something really useful and easy to explain and proclaim results. Could we possibly stop naval gazing then?

I’m still reading the related research report: HR Professionalism: What do we stand for? from Jan 2017, and I’ve been thinking about the professional journey in particular presented at the consultation events. Here the proposal is that we move from Enabler to Builder, to Shaper to Transformer as we progress in the profession. As I tweeted and fed back on the day, I doubt this will remain linear. Tweet and pic 

As a director, I should fit firmly into ‘Transformer’, yet I work in a fairly small organisation and I do a bit of all 4 every day. And in any case, isn’t ‘enablement’ a core component in all of the stages? I’ve blogged about ‘enablement’ before: Enablement - One of my old blogs.

My head was so full of ideas and questions, I was unable to suggest any alternatives to the 4 names proposed on the day. I still can’t, yet I don’t think they are quite right, particularly if one of the intentions is that organisations can see from these descriptions what level of professional knowledge, experience and therefore behaviour and expertise can be expected at each level. Why are there 4? Is this related to the 4 bands on the Profession Map? But then, there are 3 main levels of membership… I also found that the descriptions seemed to fit HR more easily than L&D. I’m sure L&D specialists, as opposed to generalists like me who also do L&D, will have commented in detail on that already!

I also found that the model as presented made me think of other models, such as Belbin Team Types (who also have a ‘shaper’ and similarly styled symbols), Kolb’s learning cycles, Argyris’s double loop learning etc. Perhaps most prominently (because there are 4 stages), I thought of Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model, where we can move along and back along the curve (leading and following) depending on the task in hand and the skills required. 

So let’s say I’m in the ‘able, willing and confident’ section of this curve, which I would map onto ‘Transformer’ on the CIPD’s proposed journey. I’ve kept up to date, I’ve become adept at using Social Media, I understand HRIS and the importance of data etc. Now, I keep seeing exciting articles about AI and VR everywhere. (In my world, these are Appreciate Inquiry – first heard from David Megginson above, and Voluntary Redundancy – too many public sector cut backs dealt with!) So, if it was necessary for me to use these technologies at work, I would not be in ‘Transformer’ mode, as I know so little about them (being too honest here, maybe?) Or would I? Would my recognition of the need to introduce them at work make me a Transformer, who was leading some Enablers or Builders to implement and help others in their use? In which case, it’s surely a general leadership journey? The terms, as currently described, are sufficiently generic that they could apply in any profession. And as we move into more senior leadership positions is most of what we do concerned with leadership and good judgement anyway? The technical knowledge becomes a given (which can be dangerous.)

So, in summary, HR is like other professions because:
All professions have many specialties and sub specialties within.
All professions or disciplines have necessary routine administrative tasks.
All professionals move through a journey as they gain knowledge and experience, and most move back and forwards along a continuum or round a learning loop as they progress, learn new stuff, apply old stuff to new situations etc.

All professionals need to use common sense, logic and risk assessment.
And we return to what makes us unique. That is our body of specialist knowledge and techniques.

What about ethics and behaviours? Well, in the sectors I’ve worked in, on the whole, behaviour, and ethical behaviour in particular have not been just the preserve of HR. I’ve probably seem a wide range of different levels of ethical behaviour, and in some organisations, I’ve had to push harder than in others regarding how people are treated. I’ve seen some very legally borderline approaches (but legal none the less, if poor practice). I’ve looked up the CIPD Code of Professional Conduct more than once. I no longer work in an organisation where that was necessary.

What about common sense? And just ‘getting it’ regarding people, what motivates them, what ‘engages’ them? (Maybe we need to cut down on all our buzz words and phrases that nobody outside of HR and management understand?) I’m certain that being an operational manager for several years before moving into HR was immensely useful. I have trodden in shoes similar to theirs, and I always think of this when I am ‘Enabling’ via coaching, practical advice and suggestions about what to do. I usually remind managers that it is their decision, not mine. My team and I advise on technical HR stuff, precedent, and on good practice. We discuss risks together. The managers make the decisions. We share the same organisational values. And this is where this ramble is going to end. The CIPD research report asks “what is more important to practitioners in how they define their work: ‘being’ an HR professional or ‘being’ a member of a particular organisation?” It is suggested that most say the latter, and this is why we haven’t challenged unethical behaviour as much as we should have. But the former could mean you don’t know and identify with the organisation sufficiently to contribute your expertise in a way that shows a deep understanding of the business and is therefore probably the ‘best’ advice you can give at the time?  Unfortunately, I have heard many people from other organisations where HR advice is outsourced commenting on how generic the responses, templates and policies they are provided with are. It was OK, legally correct etc. but needed tweaking to make it theirs.

So, I say BOTH. Equally. HR professional AND member of the organisation. 

If you've read to the end, you have certainly indulged me. Thank you. I could debate this endlessly, and it would be a bit different in its presentation and the ideas at the forefront of my mind each time, but essentially the same. 

Would love to hear what you think.


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