Legitimising HR in business

Legitimising HR in business


Whilst some organisations are seeing the strategic value of the HR function, in many others it remains a personnel administration and ‘issues management’ function, leading to the notion that anyone can do HR. Business has discovered that should the Human Resource or people function fail to “fire” it creates a never ending list of issues that require time and finances to overcome. So how did the professional community come to this view of Human Resources and how can we as HR professionals correct the misperception?

The historical view

The emergence of Human Resources during the industrial era signaled a shift of focus to the basic rights and responsibilities employee’s held and executed. The administration of these functions fell to a new, yet undefined class of worker in the form of the ever so humble HR practitioner. The position and duties were created out of necessity and as such were never truly developed with the foundation of rigorous study and certification. This, over many decades, has resulted in the proliferation of individuals who have moved into the HR profession as a matter of course.

During my career I have met many HR Directors and General Managers who have attained the position after commencing their career in other professional areas. Engineers, lawyers, recruitment agents, chefs, military personnel have all “fallen into” Human Resources, and I might add, many of them are excellent at what they do.

Still a way to go

Gaining a real seat at the executive table was an issue 20 years ago, which should have been well and truly resolved. However it hasn’t been….still many organisations that believe they are using HR has a strategic function are not, so whilst HR may have a ‘seat at the exec table’, how meaningful is it and what is the real contribution?

To be recognized along with the other executive functions in an organization in legitimacy and impact is a wish that many HR Managers, Directors and GM’s have long held. In part this barrier is self-imposed due to the HR community’s reluctance to embrace opportunities to legitimise or professionalise their function.

Recent Australian research in the public sector demonstrates that, whilst many HR staff consider themselves to be HR Practitioners, their focus is not HR but personnel administration. This topic was considered as part of recent research undertaken by the APSC and delivered in the APS Workforce Contestability Report (“Unlocking Potential- APS workforce Management Contestability Review”) in which Sandra McPhee notes that “In order to remain relevant and continue to offer the best policy advice and service, the APS is transforming the way it does business.”

The report notes that whilst current advances in technology have allowed the HR function to move away from manual processing activities in order to play a stronger role in long term business strategies, many HR functions struggle to be recognized as strategic advisors. A survey completed as a part of the report found:

  • 42% of companies surveyed reported that the impact of HR on organisational success is weak
  • 85% of companies surveyed believed that HR needed to transform to meet new business priorities [1]

HR Certification

This idea that HR requires transformation and lacks significant impact on business success has led to a growing movement in our industry now which is calling for certification in Human Resources. Note I use the term certification rather than qualification for two reasons:

  • Qualifications in human resources have existed for a long period of time and the term itself refers to the passing of examination or assessment in the field.
  • Certification verifies a level of competency in the delivery of said function, as designated by a professional organisation.

Qualifications are critical however certification goes a step further. Through certifying the HR function and its individuals, it places legitimacy on the function for the organisation. Here is a measuring stick that highlights the fact that a HR Practitioner not only understands the function but can deliver the function to a high level of quality and expertise. Much in the same way solicitors and barristers, accountants and doctors must be certified.

Here in Australia there are a growing number of professional bodies’ and organisations looking to tackle this opportunity head on. The Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) has recently released its certification pathways program which offers a clear pathway to certification for all levels of experience in the HR industry.

So how do we, as part of the Human Resources community, change the perception of our industry, influence gaining a “seat at the table” and legitimising our profession? Surely certification would be a giant step towards achieving this. Reach out to AHRI and other similarly minded organisations, seize the opportunity that is now being presented to us and bring a level of legitimacy to the HR function.


[1] Unlocking potential – APS workforce management contestability review; Sandra McPhee AM