Being ‘an expert on people’ is the most important aspect of being an HR professional, according to 41% of respondents in a recent CIPD Twitter poll. In second place was being ‘business-savvy’, with 33% of the votes. But of course, both qualities work hand-in-hand, with two respondents pointing out that neither alone defines professionalism in HR:

  • 'Expert on people is most important but only if you are business savvy'
  • 'All are V important. I chose business-savvy as to me this includes the others if done well and fairly :)'

When we put a similar question to CIPD community members this time last year, we saw a somewhat different reaction. ‘Body of knowledge and skills’ (the closest match to ‘expert on people’) came fifth, and was also the idea that received the most votes against it. In fact, ‘situational judgement’, ‘continuing professional development’ and ‘business savvy’ all ranked higher.

The comments some respondents left shed some light on this: they don’t disagree with the idea that expert knowledge is important, but felt that the word ‘body’ suggested something static and didn’t leave room for progress, innovation and situational judgement. Perhaps that’s why ‘expert on people’ scored so much higher – it’s a far more agile description.

Two other important aspects of professionalism in HR include ‘acting for society’s good’ and being ‘accountable to my peers’. These were both held in fairly equal esteem by respondents to the Twitter poll, but were chosen as the most important element of being an HR professional by just 12 and 14% of voters respectively. Some community members in last year’s poll also appeared unconvinced that social and ethical responsibility should be part of what defines an HR professional. However, those who voted for this idea, as well as participants in a similar discussion on the CIPD Members group on LinkedIn, gave some compelling arguments, including:

  • ‘Professionals have to have a remit that extends beyond just making money (for their firms or themselves)’
  • ‘We shouldn't be de-coupled from society at large given that much of what we do has a direct or indirect impact […]. For me, this makes us the real deal’
  • ‘[Professionalism in HR is about] giving the right advice - firstly ethically, secondly organisationally - even when it's not what those you're advising want to hear’

For some HR professionals, doing ‘the right thing’ will require real courage to challenge the status quo in their organisations. But interestingly, in a similar poll* just for attendees of our Annual Conference and Exhibition earlier this month, just 7% agreed that professionalism is about ‘using your unique knowledge responsively and bravely’. Encouragingly though, 39% of respondents in that poll voted for ‘Being an ambassador for the profession and champion of good HR’ – perhaps a reflection of the fact that this by its very nature encompasses all other characteristics of professionalism.

Ruth Stuart, Head of Strategy Development at the CIPD, commented: 

‘To be champions of good HR, it’s vital that HR professionals use their expert knowledge to challenge decisions and behaviours they don’t agree with. If not, then rather than being ambassadors for the HR profession, we risk becoming slaves to business outcomes. It’s not about denying businesses the right or need to make profit, it’s about encouraging organisations to think more deeply about how they go about it and what end that profit serves in the long run. We can use our expertise in people and organisational behaviour to create situations where work is good for people and business. To achieve that we need to strike the right balance between being ‘business savvy’ and helping business leaders understand their wider societal responsibilities. And, above all, we must be united as a profession and clear on what we stand for – only with that confidence and credibility will we be able to achieve our purpose.’

Many of the CIPD’s members share Ruth’s ambitions for the profession. Comments in the CIPD Members group on LinkedIn include:

  • ‘I see professionalism in HR as being a good role model and having the courage to challenge people. It is also about having accountability and being personally credible for your decisions.’
  • ‘Our roles as HR leaders are to be credible advisors to the business within the framework of our responsibility and to ensure we build relationships significant enough to be honest , courageous , commercial whilst ensuring good values are maintained throughout the organisation’
  • ‘Gravitas in HR means you are both a role model and respected advisor.’
  • ‘Truly putting people at the centre of all decision making, in support of company strategic aims’
  • ‘Being known in the organisation as someone who stands by (and up for) their principles. As mentioned already "doing the right thing".’

To help improve the HR profession’s confidence, credibility and ability to champion better work and working lives, the CIPD is developing a new Professional Standards Framework. It will be underpinned by a set of core principles that make it really clear what the profession stands for and what an employer can expect of an HR professional. To find out more and get involved in stress testing those principles, email us at

*The options respondents could choose from were worded differently in each poll, and the Twitter pollsters had fewer options to choose from

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At the CIPD, we champion better work and working lives. We help organisations to thrive by focusing on their people, supporting economies and society for the future. We lead debate as the voice for everyone wanting a better world of work.