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“Is HR a profession” is one of the questions that students had to choose amongst and answer in an assignment as part of HRM course. Through this paper, it will be discovered that there are many aspects and elements that are involved with this topic. That is why the essay took the form of a timeline or a storyline to demonstrate the flow of events. It starts with a thorough definition of HR, what is it and what does it do, and its origins. Then it moves to how HR developed today into a successful career and discusses emerging signs of HR employees becoming more professional and specialized in their field. This leads to the definition of a profession, the conditions and the characteristics of what a profession should be. Afterwards, HR professionals and researches provide “with” and “against” arguments of whether or not HR fits the description of a profession. This is supported experts statements, HR pioneers’ theories, opinions, research papers, and statistics. At the end of the essay the conclusion will reveal whether or not HR fits the profile of a profession.
What is HR?
Definition and roles:
HR is an acronym of Human Resource, a term that’s no longer only used in organizations, but a concept that has evolved to earn a respective position in today’s business world as well as its own major title in universities.
So what are Human Resources exactly? “All roads lead to Rome” is exactly what you’ll think when researching the definition, the words might differ, but eventually they all present an almost united definition: HR as it indicates, is the function of managing human aspects. To be more specific, it usually refers to a department in work places that looks after the human capital of an organization. It views the employees as a long term investment that should be maintained and developed. It is mainly responsible for employees’ affairs and welfare in the organization, these responsibilities are -but not limited to- the following:
Recruitment and selection
Financial aspects (par-rolls, compensations, rewards…etc)
Negotiations with representatives and unions
Setting policies in regard of sensitive matters such as harassments, misconducts, discrimination; and set the right disciplinary actions
Personal affairs such as stress management, leaves, peer pressure.
Recently it adopted new functions of training and developing employees’ skills and job-related education as a part of a new “Talent Management” strategy. “Its -referring to HR- primary focus is on growth and employee developmentâ€¦it emphasizes on developing individual potential and skills” (Elwood, Olton and Trott 1996)
Alignment of organization’s goals and visions with employees’ capabilities
It is noted that Human Resources functions are not limited to the HR Department only, but to other departments that may carry out HR’s role such as Finance Department. There also are the manager and supervisors of an organization that may take on few HR functions such as hiring employees, mentoring and monitoring progress.
Evolution of HR concept
However, Human Resources is only a contemporary term that emerged in the 2nd half of the 20th century. This was preceded by the “Scientific management” theory or “Taylorism” in the United States in the late 19th century by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor’s theory revolved around developing working men’s skill to maximize the outcome’s efficiency (Taylor, 1911). In the early 20th century, Taylor’s theory was criticized for being “too cold” and viewing employees as “interchangeable parts” as suggested by the welfare management theory that cared for the personal element in personnel management, suggesting that organizations should provide more that salaries, but also benefits and facilities to relieve the pressure caused by the work and home environment. Also, the human management movement supported the former as its main pillars clashed with Taylorism, it’s founder Elton Mayo and his associates’ conducted a study known as Hawthorne studies. Its basic thesis was “The hallmark of human-relation theories is the primacy given to organizations as human cooperative systems rather than mechanical contraptions.” (Mayo 1933). Fast forwarding to the near future where the abovementioned theories and studies shaped what’s known as personnel department, which later on evolved form an inflexible, reactive and a very formal part of the organization into Human resource management.
HR in the present time
HR as a department and a career path has taken a hit after another since the year 2000 with the financial crisis and global recession; its association with laying people off has put a pause on what was a rising start. However, researches were conducted, and the result was that financial bodies in specific and non-financial organizations are both looking into new strategies for a better human resources management.
A study by By Dr. Peter Cappelli and Yang Yang has shown that in the United States, 79% of companies would like to change recruitment methods conducted by HR department into becoming more effective. They’re planning on doing so by injecting investments in the HR functions; create better “talent management” strategies and development. In United Kingdom, studies revealed that the path to being a top HR executive either through starting your career in HR and climbing the ladder, or getting hired in that position without a specific knowledge in the HR department, but rather a general knowledge of the business and business environment. Whether from the inside the company or out, there’s a decline of latter by 9% (from 40% to 21% over the last decade). It also revealed that on average, HR top managers are 53 years old bachelor’s degree holders, and have spent at least 15 years of their career in their current position and approximately half of their career in HR related jobs. A surprising result was that HR executives in 2009 are older than the average age of 50 in 1999. This is a surprise because we live at times where top executives’ age average is decreasing; they are younger than the past.
This indicated that a top of the line HR position requires more than just general business-related education such as business administration, personnel administration or finance, but an in-depth knowledge of the HR profession, as well as the organization one works in. Basically it means that the HR job has become more specialized over the years.
Moreover, Nicholas J Higgins, CEO at VaLUENTiS Ltd stated that the HR profession has undergone and still undergoing professional development, and it has become today one of the highly recognized careers in the world. He added that HR has reached this status due to industry standards that qualifies HR as top career in today’s world.
However, many professional bodies insinuate that HR is still an undefined career in terms of standard functions, for example a person working in marketing can change career path and move to HR. Some go to an extend and state that HR only acts professionally, but in fact, it is not a profession as it does not have the legal ground as other profession, and it is argued that even with recent development, HR is still not specialized enough to earn the high status people place it on.
Which leads to the main question: Is HR a profession or not?
What is a profession?
Origin and definitions
The word profession has casually been used in association with many careers, including HR. In order to determine if HR is or is not a profession, the first step is to explore the term itself.
The word profession has Latin roots, it is derived from ‘professio’, which is interpreted as the ‘calling’, at the time it was associated with divinity, law or medicine. This term has transformed over the years, especially with technological evolution, and has reached a point where it is unanimously acceptable to define a profession as an occupation based on vast theoretical knowledge and practices that are recognized by regulatory bodies related it the career’s field of expertise and aimed at providing social welfare (Bullock & Trombley, 1999).
This matches Boone’s (2001) statement that “Professions are based on scientific and philosophical facts acquired through scholarly endeavor. Individuals who enter a profession do so for reasons that distinguish them from other work or vocations. They understand that their work renders a unique public service with a scientific or philosophical basis and/or body of knowledge that requires an extended period of academic and hands-on preparation. Professions are also based on specialized skills necessary for the professional to perform the public service”
Characteristics of a profession
From the abovementioned definitions, it is clear that there are conditions that should be fulfilled in order for an occupation to become a profession, those are:
Thorough knowledge of the area of profession both in theory and practice.
Requires continuous education and staying up to date with progress of the profession (Brown, 1971).
A professional should be altruistic: the special nature of the profession that is concerned with social interest.
Special status in the society because of the sensitivity of the profession
Regulated by bodies that set the profession’s standards and code of ethics, monitor and grant admission through license, for example.
Independence of decision making and dominance of their work
Assessment or testing of knowledge and skills, usually conducted by regulatory bodies
Professional closure: bar of entry and/or expulsion to those who don’t meet the criteria or break the code of ethics.
Shift of dominance: Most high status professions such as medicine, engineering and divinity were almost male-exclusive and/or few female element would exist in that work force group. However, this trait is on its way to extension as the female workforce invaded the labour market which included all professions, such as accepting female priestesses in ministers and society. This creates a new trend in the market in general, and in professions in specific.
It can be fathomed that these create an outline of characteristics of what a profession should be and what it should acquire.
Is HR a profession?
HR IS a profession
“Professions change and evolve all the time because the nature of business changes”
This quotation can be proven true, as the term profession was exclusive to only divinity, law and medicine in the past, it has expanded now to include other careers such as accountancy, dentistry, musicians, actuaries…etc.
The Canadian HR Reporter in association with Human Resources Professional Association conducted a study titled “is HR a True Profession?” In which surveys have been distributed to the general public. The subject of this survey was how HR as a profession perceived by the public is. It is noted that no definitions were provided of what HR is, that part was left out intentionally to be filled by the participants.
Out of 2235 participants, 85% believed HR to be “a true profession”. Some event stated that it was preposterous to state otherwise. Although this seems like a positive respond, the comments by the participants have shown a conflict of how people defined HR as a profession. Many felt that HR has evolved and “professionalized” over the decades and has earned sufficient credentials in the eyes of other professions and the public, fulfilling couple of conditions of a profession. In fact, 72% said that human resources professionals display high levels of professionalism. Moreover, 67.2% believed that the extent of professionalism in the HR department have improved in the past five years. On the same note, people also stated that it was unfair to compare HR to other established professions such as law because HR is a relatively modern term that has been evolving until it reached its current status, and that this process hasn’t reached the finish line. A participant commented “all the pieces were there, but we have to give it some time.”
Cappelli’s and Yang’s previously mentioned study supports the above as well. The study has shown that the average HR executives’ age has increase from 60 – 63 between the years 1999-2009, and that a new trend was sighted which was recruiting HR managers from not only within the organization, but form within HR department itself. This results that HR is viewed as an occupation that requires extensive knowledge regarding the job and the organization, and that it takes years to accumulate such knowledge. It is also sighted that HR is becoming more specialized department and career. Moreover, the study has shown that HR is viewed as a field where females dominate. This might due to associating female capabilities with the soft approach that HR is adapting. It also indicates that female HR managers have the capability of implementing organizational changes for job advancement that their male colleagues might not possess. This study has notable positive prospect of HR as profession.
Moreover, just like other professions, HR is no longer a university elective subject, but has became a compulsory subject to certain business studies majors as well as becoming a major itself! A whole range of studies dedicated to HR which is becoming the next “It” profession sort-to-speak. It means that another condition’s fulfilled. Another condition is that it should care for social welfare. Half of HR’s job’s title is Human! HR is it indicates performs functions that look after and manages the human element of any organization.
Finally, the US based Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) holds a Strategic HR Conference every year in which it chooses awards and honours professional HR departments nationwide for excellent job. In one of the conferences, Losey (1997) stated the “HR is a profession”. Such a front could represent a regulatory body for HR as it already performs some main functions such as testing and rewarding.
HR is NOT a profession
On the other hand, there are many unfavourable votes of HR as a profession. Starting with The Canadian HR Reporter& Human Resources Professional Association “is HR a True profession” survey.
Even though an incredible 85% of participants believed HR to be a true profession, their interpretation of their answer wasn’t as favourable. Despite their positive responses, participants felt that HR might not fit the profession’s definition is the traditional sense. Many quoted Professionalism: The Third Logic by Eliot Freidson, that there aren’t regulatory bodies or authorities to organize the so called “profession” and license it, many HR executives did not get HR specific training or education, some stated they felt it fell short on the ethics department which is consistent with the views of Ulrich & Eichunger (1998) “HR must become more professional”. The last can be due to HR’s position of power. It has the authority and the ability to hire and fire, and perform disciplinary functions such as warning or salary deductions. In relation, some people -outside the study- stated that “The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil” and described it as “policing arm of executive management” which are very dark outlooks. Back to the study, there was a 7.8% of participant that stated bluntly that HR isn’t a true profession. They felt that HR just another part of many business functions such as marketing.
Another point was that even though 85% perceived HR as a true profession, only 30% believed that the people outside the HR profession circle view it in the same way which is a highly disappointing percentage. Those suggested that HR’s role might still be stuck in the personnel concept.
Moreover, although 72% stated the HR professionals show high levels of professionalism, some indicated that this is a case of acting professionally rather that actually being a professional as -again as above- it just doesn’t fit the characteristics of a profession: it has yet to earn a legal grounding, until then it cannot be referred to as a science even in bachelor’s degree in universities, but rather an art degree. In relation, it cannot be labeled a science because it lacks the knowledge associated with this kind of degrees. Also, it was found that HR might not be as significant and has a major impact on organizational strategy as many find it to be because a recent study (CFO Research Services 2003) has reported that HR repots to CEOs in 52% of organizations only. Moreover, there’s the fact that HR’s functions are not widely standardized and not only might it differ across industries, but within industries.
So, is HR a profession?
Both sides of the debate presented solid arguments. On the one hand, people who viewed HR is a profession stated that even though it only emerged in recent times, it has the knowledge and the skills, the accountability, it performs a profession’s function of serving the welfare of the employees, and to a certain extents; the acceptance of the public and other professions. Furthermore, its functions are becoming more specialized, female employees seem to be leading the way to the future of HR as an integrated part of organizations’ strategies, and despite recent set back it suffered in the eyes of the public due to the global financial crisis, it is still a highly desirable field of study and employment.
On the other hand, many have stated the exact opposite. HR does not fit the profile of a profession because of the lack of regulatory front that sets its affairs in order, it did not get the public’s and professionals’ respect as an established occupation, it has yet to evolve and shape into a more specific mold. Until it does, it will take a while.
In the end, it seems like “HR is a profession” advocates might win this argument. However, opponents have a strong point as well. There should be more common standards of what HR is and what roles it plays. In addition, HR should set strategies: where it was and where it wants to go, while making sure that these strategies are in alignment and cooperation of the organizations’ overall strategy. Even though HR is evolving and developing as a profession, at the moment it can only be described as a profession in progress
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