HR professional judgement: A Middle East perspective

15 November 2015
Published: November 2015
 
The HR profession has traditionally been defined through a set of ‘best practices’, this knowledge, developed primarily in large Western organisations, is increasingly inadequate for businesses operating in the Middle East. Although relevant skills are critical for HR to lead innovation in people management in the region, it is essential that when applying these skills practitioners are also clear on their professional obligations. In order to help HR professionals make the right decisions, we are defining and testing a set of principles that will describe what HR professionals stand for.
 
Profession for the Future is CIPD's strategy to ensure we continue to fulfil our purpose as the world of work evolves. As part of this programme of work 'lenses' were identified which describe possible perspectives one may consider when making ethical choices about work. The 'lenses' were tested by examining the actual choices that HR professionals and business leaders make in specific workplace situations. We conducted a series of focus groups and a survey in partnership with YouGov in four regions – the UK, USA, Asia, and Middle East and North Africa (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE) across the public, private and voluntary sectors.
 
This report sets out to identify how HR practitioners and business leaders in the MENA region make professional judgements in situations dealing with people management and development. The survey found that HR and business leaders had conflicting points of view and different interpretations of value priorities in making people-related decisions in organisations. This report explores the emerging themes.
The past two decades have seen radical and unprecedented change in the Middle East. Key areas, specifically Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, Qatar, have invested and diversified to build new and significant regional economic hubs. New industries have been created and the region now has created globally recognised brands in terms of airlines, tourism, ports, financial centres and telecoms. With many leading global organisations now operating in the UAE, it has become a ‘rapidly diversifying, entrepreneurial, and globally connected business region’ (Bozer 2011). The wider GGC region is also seeing major social change, for example Saudi Arabia’s immensely active social media market is encouraging freer expression (Kiefer 2015).
 
This economic and social transformation is testing the accepted norms of how work is organised and the ways of designing and maintaining the employment relationship in the region. For example, while the arrival of multinationals increased availability and movement of talent, recent regulatory changes have placed constraints on the extent to which foreign workers can be deployed. But, the biggest challenge is the pace of change with which this complex environment is evolving, placing a demand on people management practices to become ever more flexible and responsive to the requirements of the various organisational stakeholders. In this context, there is growing pressure on the role of HR to evolve and play a greater part in developing organisations for the future.
 
Where the profession has traditionally been defined through a set of ‘best practices’, this knowledge, developed primarily in large Western organisations, is increasingly inadequate for businesses operating in the region. Instead, HR professionals are expected to have a deeper context-specific understanding of the needs and strategy of a particular firm, as highlighted in the CIPD’s Voice of the Profession: Middle East (2015c) report, with 31% of business leaders and managers identifying business acumen as the area where HR/L&D professionals have the greatest skills gap. Another area of development is workforce analytics, which is a necessary tool of strategic business decisions (CIPD 2015a).
 
Although relevant skills are critical for HR to lead innovation in people management in the region, it is essential that when applying these skills practitioners are also clear on their professional obligations. Today, emphasis on shared value-creation – designing work in a way that recognises the interdependency of the business and the communities it is tapping – means that organisations must take into account all the stakeholders impacted by the decision. This sensitivity to the available ethical choices, above and beyond the legal requirements, is what makes professional advice relevant and trustworthy. One HR leader in the UAE described the value that HR adds through the ability to make balanced judgements:
 
‘What does our function offer, what does it provide to the business? If it is purely about setting some policies in place, and making sure that everybody meets them, well then, frankly, we’re not necessary. ... What I would like to think we offer is the capability to make a balanced judgement. ...I’ve got the ability to be able to look at [the circumstances] and balance my decision with all of those factors influencing it, and I think that’s the value that we add. That for me is where we make the difference.’
As the CIPD, we are committed to supporting the HR profession to champion better work and working lives – for the benefit of individuals, businesses, economies and society. We recognise that in the context of the complex and uncertain world of work today, HR professionals will be expected to have the knowledge and courage to make trusted expert judgements, creating tailored systems geared towards creating sustainable organisational value through people. This is why, in order to help HR professionals make the right decisions, we are defining and testing a set of principles that will describe what HR professionals stand for.
 
Profession for the Future (PFF) is the CIPD’s strategy to ensure we continue to fulfil our purpose as the world of work evolves. It begins with a programme of work to define what it will take for the HR profession of the future to meet its full potential to champion better work and working lives. We are collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders within and outside HR to define and test a new set of principles that will help HR professionals make the right decisions and advise business leaders what to do, no matter what the context and no matter what the future may hold.
Philosophy offers decision-makers a number of ways to reflect on options and become aware of what the outcome might look like by interrogating alternatives from one or another perspective, neither of which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on its own. With regard to working, there are eight perspectives or ‘lenses’ that can be used to inform decision options.
 
1. Well-being - Workplaces should promote well-being in its broad sense, not because it increases employee engagement or productivity, but as an outcome in itself. Work should provide individuals with autonomy and happiness. When there is a choice of providing bad and providing good (for example, when the interests of different stakeholders conflict), the decision should provide as much good and as little bad overall as possible (even though some might be worse off as a result of this).
 
2. Rights - The rights of people should not be violated just to improve the outcomes for someone else, so individuals shouldn’t be treated simply as means to an end. People have a right to be protected from harm, and to have a choice over what happens to them. In the workplace, this means the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to exercise autonomy and control.
 
3. Merit - Workplaces should be designed to guarantee equal opportunities based on individual talent and hard work, rather than irrelevant characteristics such as gender, race, sexuality and social class.
 
4. Fairness as justice - In practice not every individual is able to compete based on their merit – people have unequal access to education and development, for example, and don’t have the same ‘power’ to argue their cause independently. Workplaces should be designed with an eye to those who might end up being the worst off as a result of the decision.
 
5. Market - Rather than distributing benefits based on ability and need, people should get what they can freely negotiate. Some people are lucky enough to have scarce qualities and the ability to negotiate freely to command higher wages, for example. Others are unfortunate to end up with less, even though they might be no less worthy.
 
6. Democracy - People should be able to influence the decisions that affect them. Workplaces should give a right of voice to everyone whose interests are at stake and implement procedures for agreeing decisions collectively.
 
7. Character - Decision-makers should demonstrate integrity, despite circumstances that might require compromising the principles. Making choices in a difficult situation is not about following a rule, but doing the right thing, something a ‘decent person’ would do.
 
8. Handing down - The long-term interests of people, organisations and society are more important than short-term gains. Workplace decisions should look to preserve the past and support the future interests of the people, the business and the communities.
In the context of the larger appetite for standards of human resource management as part of corporate governance frameworks (ISO n.d.), there is a space and a need to define how individual HR practitioners will be delivering shared value to organisational stakeholders, and criteria describing what it means to be a professional in this area. The current research aims to understand which professional principles could be important to people management and development practitioners.
 
First, we reviewed the moral philosophy literature on the possible ways of looking at the choices regarding work and working lives (Clark 2015). This review identified a number of ‘lenses’, which do not represent ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ judgements about the relationship between people and organisations but describe possible perspectives one may consider when making ethical choices about work (see Box 1). We then tested the use of these lenses by examining the actual choices that HR professionals and business leaders make in specific workplace situations. We conducted a series of focus groups and a survey in partnership with YouGov in four regions – the UK, USA, Asia, and Middle East and North Africa (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE) across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Respondents were asked to decide whether the judgements associated with the lenses were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
 
The survey provided two types of information:
First, it asked the respondents whether (and how often) they use these lenses when making decisions in their professional capacity at work. This allowed us to gauge the extent of prominence of particular lenses in professional judgement, as well as practical challenges of doing ‘the right thing’ within the organisational context.
 
In addition, it presented the respondents with a set of abstract scenarios dealing with people management dilemmas across a range of organisational contexts, including growth, cost management, business change and a sustainable business context. In each of the scenarios the respondents were asked to decide whether in their professional opinion each of the lenses was ‘right’ to apply in that particular set of circumstances. Comparing the responses about the practitioners’ own use of lenses with the choices made in the scenarios, we were able to gauge whether specific situations make particular perspectives more or less relevant to making professional judgements.
 
The report, downloadable below, focuses on the three themes emerging in the responses of the practitioners in the MENA region in particular:
  1. balancing competing stakeholder interests
  2. a variety of perspectives on ‘fairness’
  3. current business needs preventing principled decisions.
Download the full report below