HR’s Higher Purpose

In a recent article on the professionalization of HR, Pohler & Willness (2013) wrote:

“HR is in a unique position to safeguard a higher societal value, a hallmark of established professions, by balancing competing efficiency and equity interests in the fulfillment of the social contract between organizations and employees.”

There are a few strands to disentangle in this statement.  One idea in this statement is that ‘safeguarding some higher societal value’ is a key characteristic of professions; therefore, if HR wants to be considered a true profession, as opposed to just an occupation, it would need to appear to be safeguarding some higher societal value.  The other idea in the Pohler & Willness is that this higher societal value is equity in employment relationships.

According to the literature on professions, one of the key characteristics of professions is that their members have a sense of higher purpose, of some social value that goes beyond commercial interests.  For instance, Friedson (2001) noted this sense of higher purpose as one of his five defining characteristic of professions:

“an ideology that asserts greater commitment to doing good work than to economic gain and to the quality rather than the economic efficiency of work”

There may also be levels of higher purpose—from ‘doing good work’ to ‘higher societal value.’  Nonetheless, the idea here is that to the extent that an occupational group is only about serving the wishes of employers and clients this occupational group is not a profession.  I would suspect, however, that many HR professionals would be somewhat uneasy with the idea that HR needs to be ‘safeguarding some higher societal value.’  HR professionals are certainly not strangers to the notion that they are often the ones to protect the interests of employees.  But, HR professionals are also aware that there is often a price to pay for doing so.

It is inherent in the idea of higher purpose is that, at least sometimes, there will be a clash between the values of the professionals and the values of employers and clients.  This means that being a professional will mean, at least sometimes, being in conflict with employers and clients.  It means, at least sometimes, pushing back and being willing to take a stand.  It also means, at least sometimes, paying the price for pushing back and being willing to take a stand.  It is this latter aspect which makes some uncomfortable with the whole idea of ‘higher purpose.’  Especially since Human Resources management is a profession that operates in the world of business.

This ‘higher purpose’ need not be lofty or abstract—it can be as straightforward as doing work that is in compliance with the law or generally accepted standards as to what is honest or correct.  Professionals assert their independence to the extent that they can refuse to do things that are illegal or against generally accepted standards as to what is fair, appropriate, or correct.

It may be argued that focusing on those situations where professionals may be required to stand their ground is a somewhat flawed perspective because such situations are relatively infrequent.  There are two points that could be made here.  The first is that, although infrequent, such situations are an inherent aspect of professional life for HR professionals.  In a Pulse Survey conducted some time ago (Have you ever been coerced?, Canadian HR Reporter, June 2008) it was found that 61.4% of HR professionals who responded to the survey reported being put in a difficult professional situation at least occasionally.  The other point is that, although infrequent, these situations become ‘moments of truth’ that are important in shaping our professional identity.

The key issue for HR professionals appears to be ‘vulnerability’—that insisting on ‘doing good work’ might come at a personal cost and that there very little support HR professionals in these situations.  Some HR professionals would like to see governmental recognition of HR as a profession because this recognition would be helpful in bolstering the ability of HR professionals to push back when employers and clients cross the line.  The unstated implication of the above is that, until this governmental recognition happens we really shouldn’t be surprised when HR professionals fail to push back when employers and clients cross the line.

But we are not alone as a profession that struggles with these issues.  Accountants, for instance, are in the same situation.  Consider the following statement by R. H. Montgomery (Understanding accounting ethics, 2nd Ed.):

“Accountants and the accountancy profession exist as a means of public service; the distinction which separates a profession from a mere means of livelihood is that the profession is accountable to standards of the public interest, and beyond the compensation paid by clients.”

The higher purpose of accounting usually refers to honest representation of financial situations.  As with HR, accountants, at least sometimes, find themselves in a situation where their higher purpose requires them to push back against the wants of their employers and clients.

Interestingly, it would appear that many HR professionals feel that accountants are on a stronger footing when it comes to asserting their professional independence.  As it turns out, accountants may be more vulnerable than some may think they are.  For the most part, accountancy is not a licensed profession—employers and clients have the choice to hire or engage either designated or undesignated accountants.

This is not to say that HR professionals are not more vulnerable than accountants when it comes to asserting professional independence.  The interesting aspect here is that this may be based on more on perception than any governmental sanction.

This creates a Catch 22 for the HR profession.  On the one hand, to be considered as a true profession it is important for HR to be seen as safeguarding a higher societal value.  On the other side of the Catch 22, until HR is widely seen to be a true profession, many HR professionals will consider it risky to do so.

Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, HRPA and Special Regulatory Advisor, CCHRA.

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