When the topic of professionalism comes up in HR circles, there are two responses which are often heard. The first is a personal response that goes something like ‘I have always behaved in a professional manner, and my clients and colleagues have always thought of me as a professional.’ The other response goes something like ‘I am always professional in what I do, but there are others in our profession that give the rest of us a bad reputation.’
The responses are similar in that both believe that their behaviour is professional; the responses are different, however, in that the second admits that there may be an issue with at least some HR professionals. The first response makes it an individual issue—a matter of personal reputation. The second response comes from a shared reputation perspective–where the actions of the few have an impact on the reputation of all, and that as an individual HR professional, one cannot entirely stand aside of the reputation of the profession as a whole.
Interestingly, it is probably the case that if we approached those individuals who in the opinion of the author of the second response ‘give the rest of us a bad reputation,’ these same individuals would likely respond that they have always behaved in a professional manner.
The above opens the door to many questions:
- What does it mean to be professional in the context of Human Resources management?
- Is there a difference between being professional and being a professional?
- Just how professional are HR professionals?
- What is the perceived level of professionalism of HR professionals from the perspective of the public?
- Is this an issue that we should be concerned about?
- How do we increase the level of professionalism of HR professionals if HR professionals are of the opinion that they are already professional?
Although many professions are concerned with such issues, they have not made as much of an impression on HR professionals. Consider the law profession, for instance. In North America, there are over 20 professionalism and ethics centers in top law schools. These centers focus specifically on issues of professionalism and ethics in the legal profession. Even more pertinent is what has happened in the accounting profession. The accounting profession, like the HR profession, is one that operates in the world of business.
Over the last 20 years or so, there have been multiple accounting scandals that were widely reported on by the media—Enron, Nortel, and Livent, to name but a few. These various scandals have resulted in fraud charges, bankruptcy protection requests, and the closure of companies and accounting firms. These scandals were not due to incompetence but failures in professionalism and ethics.
As a result of these scandals, the reputation of the accounting profession took a hit and the spotlight was drawn to the ethical standards accepted within the accounting profession. To restore the confidence of the public in the accounting profession, various accounting organizations have put an increased emphasis on professionalism and ethics in the training and development of accounting professionals.
It is not that the topics of professionalism and ethics have been completely ignored in Human Resources. There has been the odd book here and there such as Human Resource Management: Ethics and Employment, edited by Ashly H. Pinnington, Rob Macklin, and Tom Campbell (Oxford University Press, 2007) and the occasional course offered; nonetheless it would be fair to say that the attention given to matters of professionalism and ethics by the HR profession is nowhere nears the attention given to such matters by other professions.
Likely, this is a matter of maturity as a profession, but it does point to where the Human Resources professions must go as it takes the next step.