Subjectivity and the HR profession

Basing the profession’s work on “gut feelings” gets HR nowhere.
By Kunle Akingbola
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/01/2001

We all know that it is impossible to enact legislation, policy or guidelines for every issue employers will encounter in the workplace. Specifically in human resources, we deal with a wide array of issues from day to day that are outside the realm of HR-related legislation and the numerous policies and procedures of our organizations. These issues often have a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity.

The consequence of this is that we are constantly required to consult on issues with no previous precedence in our organization or acceptable best practices from other organizations. This inevitably makes room for purely subjective perspective. The danger in such situations is that our feelings and gut reactions can overshadow our professional judgement. We can therefore ( knowingly or unknowingly) cloud our professional judgement with our subjective opinion.

The fact that our professional judgement should be based on the undiluted analysis of situations, issues, or facts is under-emphasized in the discourse among human resources practitioners. I’m starting to think that there is an urgent need for the incorporation of basic ethics training in human resources education and professional development.

As human beings, we have views, perspectives, likes and dislikes, which are the products of our subjective warehouse. But as HR professionals who deal with complex human issues on a daily basis, objectivity should be something of a “higher calling” to us.

Beyond the moral angle, there is a huge professional and organizational (bottom-line) impetus for human resources professional to embrace objectivity as best as possible. On the professional side, I believe one of the reasons why human resources has yet to arrive at the pinnacle of professionalism is subjectivity.

In organizations where human resources is seen in lesser light (where human resources is seen as a less strategic function), the underlining belief is that human resource is half administration and half personal opinion. These organizations relegate human resources functions to the lower level by erroneously incorporating these functions into the job description of the line manager or supervisor.

Anyone who has worked in an organization (small or medium) without a human resources department or practitioner will attest to the fact that it is not finance that discourages the management of such organizations from having a formal HR department or practitioner, but rather the view of human resources held by management.

Increasingly, some of the cornerstones of human resources, like job analysis, job evaluation and performance review are being questioned by employees. There are best practices in these areas but often, subjectivity creeps into the process and makes the tool ineffective. The issue of objectivity is central to recruitment and selection but it is not uncommon to hear human resources practitioners say, “I go with my gut feeling.”

With gut feelings, no one needs a human resources person for selection, everybody has gut feelings. Specific knowledge and skills of recruitment and selection should distinguish the recruitment specialist from the crowd.

Even in areas such as health and safety, where HR’s duties are well outlined in the respective provincial Occupational Health and Safety Acts, health and safety sometimes becomes victim of subjectivity among human resources professionals.

There is a need for ethics education in human resources. Often we are not consciously aware that we are crossing the thin line from objectivity into subjectivity, some education in ethics will help to remind us when we are about to cross the invincible line. This is very important before we start reading more reports about the role of HR in unfair practices.

Kunle Akingbola is manager of employee and volunteer resources in the Toronto office of the Canadian Red Cross. He may be contacted at (416) 480-0195, ext. 2216 or kunle1@home.com.

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