Human Resource Management on the Road to Professionalization in the USA and UK


Guest Post by Bridie Fanning, Principal, Strategic Human Resources Consulting

I recently wrote a report on Human Resource Management (HRM) as a profession in the UK and USA and concluded that the human resources profession is on the road to professionalization and can be considered as semi professional. However, it left asking a larger question - should it be?

The report explores HRM as a profession and is primarily concerned with the current status of the HRM profession against a framework of an ideal type of professionalism in both the UK and the USA.

There is a broad sociological debate on what a profession is and how it can be defined. The high status "true" professions are law, medicine and divinity and have the identifiable characteristics of a true profession. It is against these that the others can be judged. There is agreement that a profession is an occupation which has specified characteristics and no single characteristic can adequately convey the idea of a definition.

Table 1.1 The Nine Desirable Characteristics that identify a Profession

The literature identified nine characteristics that define a profession:

Governing BodyCertification, Education & TrainingBody of Knowledge
Code of Ethics & DisciplineLegal StatusResearch
IndependenceContribution to SocietyRecognition

Whether an occupation can be classed as a profession or not is not a yes or no answer but a continuum. The road to professionalization is a journey that takes time. The traditional professions would rate highly on all nine dimensions of a profession and have been granted legal status.

The human resources profession is semi professional in so far as it scores highly on many of the nine dimensions of what constitutes a profession but not highly on everything, in particular they do not require a license to practice and expulsion from the governing body would not prohibit the individual practicing.

Table 1.2 HR Professionality Continuum - The extent to which the HR can be considered a profession in the UK and USA


The implications of professionalization for HR practitioners are significant for the design and education of HR professionals and how they position themselves within their companies to support their businesses.

Are they similar to other professions within the organization that serve the company but also are held to the standards of practice of their profession such as lawyers and accountants? or are they general managers who should follow the needs of the business without regard to their professions code of ethics? Is HR education more about a process of discovery that is learned rather than taught? or is it about mastering a set body of knowledge?

There are those commentators who argue that HR as a profession should have its own standards, qualifications and ethics and allow HR professionals to refuse to do things that the senior management team of the organization asked them to, if they went beyond accepted HR standards (in the same way that legal or financial experts might). There are those who argue that the effective HR specialist should have the skills to be able to act in the HR arena as necessary to enable the senior management team to fulfill whatever strategic direction they have chosen. Are these two roles compatible or are they mutually exclusive?

The road to professionalization for HR practitioners is a journey that takes time. This report has shown that HR is on this journey. The question that still remains is should it be?

 To read the full report, click here.