PROFESSIONAL IDENTITY UNDER ATTACK: LEARNING TO FACE THE CRITICS

M.A. Mackay

University of Portsmouth (UNITED KINGDOM)
Critics question the professional status of human resources (HR) and a review of the literature shows international criticism of the deficient quality of practitioners (Sheeehan and DeCieri, 2012). The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore how HR practitioners make sense of professional development in a hostile context. In doing so, this study responds to Friedman and Afitska’s call (2009, p13) for more research into continuing professional development. The research aims to investigate individual understandings of a specific occupational group, as the human resource function often struggles for organisational respect (Farndale, Scullion and Sparrow, 2010) regarded as a ‘semi-profession’ in comparison to traditional professions.

The study uses an interpretivist methodological approach to examine the conceptual links between professional education and identity formation. The phenomenological research design opens up investigation of participants’ issues, their lived work experiences and situated interpretations. The research is grounded in a UK university business school and based on a selected sample of 18 HR educators and 42 HR practitioners. The research participants share an educational context and data was gathered through semi-structured interviews and a survey questionnaire. Subsequent qualitative data analysis used a three-stage coding approach to develop thematic interpretation: first, reading and re-reading collected data, second, identifying descriptive codes through constant comparison and third, analysing pattern associations to categorise responses. Findings illustrate that HR specialists view commitment to continuous development as a mark of professionalism that affirms integrity of practice. The data points to specialists’ use of professional development as evidence of professional credibility and growing competence. However, under critical scrutiny, HR specialists may emphasise the significance of their professional learning to boost a sense of occupational identity.

This study extends theoretical understandings of professional learning and contributes fresh insight of situated knowledge development as a means to strengthen professional identity for a derided occupational group. Consequently, practitioners’ belief in continuous education and learning represents a robust response to public critics. This matters to HR specialists, educators and other stakeholders to change scepticism of the function and positively respond to the workforce challenges of competitive talent management in a global environment. A practical implication is that continuing professional development supports aspirations to elevate respect for the human resources field. Finally, this research has wider implications for identity formation for newer occupational groups, such as coaching, who aspire to professional status.

References
Farndale, E., Scullion H. and Sallow, P. (2010). The role of the corporate HR function in global talent management, Journal of World Business, 45, 161-168.
Friedman, A. & Afitska, N. (2009). ‘Extent of CPD: The lifelong learning of millions’, PARN: Bristol.
Sheehan, C. and De Cieri, H. (2012). Charting the strategic trajectory of the Australian HR professional. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources 50, 151-168.