Professionalism and professionalization in human resources (HR): HR practitioners as professionals and the organizational professional project

Stephen Williams, Anna Syrigou

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This article investigates how human resources (HR) practitioners operate, and understand themselves, as professionals, and considers the implications for understanding HR professionalization. Using rich, in-depth qualitative data collected from 20 in-depth interviews with experienced UK-based HR practitioners, and based on a largely phenomenological method, the research explores the nature of: the HR professional role, HR professional knowledge, HR professional ethics, and HR professional identity. It shows how HR professionalism is grounded in, and a product of, the organizational activities and experiences of practitioners themselves. There is a particular value attached to the operational and relational aspects of HR practitioners’ role, based on the importance of ensuring that their activities and interventions contribute to the functioning of their employing organizations, from which they seek to derive greater professional standing. Informed by a neo-Weberian approach, which emphasizes the dynamics of distinctive professional projects, the research draws attention to the ‘organizational’ dimension of HR professionalization. It offers an alternative way of understanding the professional project in HR, one that avoids viewing it either as a function of a strategic, business partnering agenda or contingent upon HR becoming less managerialist and more receptive of a wider range of stakeholders. The organizational focus of HR professionalism, and its operational character, should not simply be considered as obstacles to professionalization. Rather, they can be viewed as important features of the—‘organizational’—professional project evident in HR; a project which derives legitimacy from its connection to, and alignment with, the operations of practitioners’ employing organizations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)151–164
JournalJournal of Professions and Organization
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2023


  • human resource practitioners
  • human resource professionalization
  • neo-Weberian
  • organizational and managerial professions
  • organizational professionals
  • professional projects

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