Why we call it the people profession

The journey and evolution of the HR and people industry

The shift from HR to people profession

HR has historically battled with its identity, purpose and influence. The 1980s term ‘big hat, no cattle’ criticised a perceived lack of strategic input and influence the function contributed to key business decisions. And classifying humans as a resource for the organisation showed little trace of a people-centric approach. HR was seen as admin-heavy, with ‘personnel’ types who employees felt perennially anxious to hear from. But that’s gone now.

It is now recognised that the expertise and specialist knowledge required to effectively manage and develop the workforce (and people practices) within organisations goes beyond HR alone. What we call the people profession actually encompasses a multi-disciplinary community which incorporates other people areas in addition to HR:

  • Organisational development (OD)
  • Learning and development (L&D)
  • Organisational design
  • Organisational change
  • Recruitment
  • Talent management
  • Compensation and benefits
  • Human resource information systems/human resource management systems professionals.

As you can see, the profession brings together a plethora of knowledge and expertise to enable the holistic development and management of people – and people practices – while prioritising employees’ experience of work. The shift in terminology from ‘HR practitioners’ to ‘people professionals’ signals two pertinent points:

  1. It recognises the profession as exactly that – a professional field of work and expertise.

  2. It emphasises professionalism. As with other professional fields of work, the people profession should be perceived as one which upholds professional standards and takes a strategic, expert approach, recognising the impact and value people teams contribute to organisational goals.

It's all about the people

People are arguably the most important asset to any business. The knowledge, capability and skills of the workforce – its human capital – defines the valuable contribution employees add to the organisation. Whilst this is vital to an organisation’s success, it takes a dynamic approach to managing talent and people, who are highly influenced by the trends that shape the world of work.

Macro trends like globalisation, technological advancement and social responsibility have been overarching drivers in shaping organisational environments and how they operate, gradually affecting the world of work – and therefore on the people working within businesses. Meanwhile, there are other unexpected trends that have also impacted greatly on people practices, and the people profession has had to rapidly respond. This has never been more evident than the change brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the devastation and confusion suffered through such uncertain times, people professionals have shown themselves to be experts at the forefront safeguarding businesses and their workforces. A people-centric approach matters now more than ever before.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted pressing people priorities – especially when it comes to the risk management of worker’s health, safety and wellbeing. People professionals have had a difficult balancing act to juggle – they’re expected to address immediate issues to ensure business continuity while also protecting the needs of the workforce.

Workforce planning issues and increased flexible working measures to support an eventual safe return to the workplace are also high on the agenda for people professionals. On top of that, businesses and senior leaders call for the profession to step up and support line managers in areas which have significantly changed in recent times. For example, the profession has had to ensure managers feel confident to develop and manage effective virtual teams while also considering different employee groups to address any growing diversity and inclusions issues (a recent focus in the media).

In these challenging times, people professionals can also add great value by being agile in their thinking on business priorities and outcomes. Recent CIPD research found that business stakeholders and people professionals highlight the health and wellbeing of their staff, retention of employees, and employee engagement and motivation as the immediate priorities businesses face during this pandemic (especially as remote and homeworking become the new norm for many).

A profession at the front and centre of change

For the foreseeable future, businesses will be heavily reliant on the expert knowledge of their people teams, with many facing difficult people decisions that may challenge their professional principles.

However, throughout this time we’ve also seen some real positive impact and dedication from the people profession community. The pressures presented by the global pandemic have forced many professionals out of their comfort zones, calling for more agile thinking, flexible ways of working and innovative problem solving. People professionals have been hard at work, committed to supporting organisations to be adaptive and enable business continuity under such unprecedented circumstances.

It’s times like these, when the profession goes above and beyond, that are testament to the profession demonstrating its undeniable worth as a valued business partner. It’s now up to senior leaders to uphold the reputation of the profession as a value-adding, business-savvy people leader that has a vital part to play in contributing to organisational goals and business strategy.

It’s clear to see, now more than ever, that people professionals are at the centre. And that is exactly why we call it the people profession.

Visit the new Profession Map to explore the journey we’ve come on as our profession has evolved. The Map sets the international benchmark for the people profession, helping you to have the maximum impact through the work you do.

Further reading

Explore our related content