Among the variety of activities that HR professionals may be expected to do in the workplace, little has been disclosed about the balance of these activities. A recent survey by researchers at Middlesex University, UK and City University of Hong Kong has taken a snapshot of this among 983 HR practitioners in the UK and Hong Kong and the results reveal some interesting findings in relation to the type of activities and how they match to levels of professional development among those practitioners.

What activities are being done?

Practitioners in both countries were asked about a range of activities associated with the formal professional standards for HR in both countries, ranging from ‘resourcing’ issues, to ‘reward’ issues, to ‘training’ and ‘management development’ through to ‘employee relations’. They were asked, for each issue, about their balance of experience and knowledge, where they could identify where they had an ‘ideal mix of experience and knowledge’, ‘adequate knowledge, but inadequate experience’ (capturing the issues where formal professional training had occurred, but where experience is lacking), ‘adequate experience, but inadequate knowledge’ (reflecting those who may feel more professional development may be required) and finally those issues where practitioners have ‘neither experience or knowledge’.

“What are you doing and how knowledgeable are you about the things you are doing?”


As might be expected, the most frequent response for all issues is of ‘an ideal mix’ and the issues are spread across all types of activities (the highest ranked issues are ‘recruitment and selection’ and ‘consulting and communicating with staff’, both at 77%. However, there are also issues where this perception of ‘balance’ is only marginal. The issue that stands out on this is ‘union negotiation’ where there is a fairly even distribution of response categories. This is likely to reflect two things: the high proportion of workplaces without unions (from the sample, 38% of UK workplaces and 8% of Hong Kong workplaces were unionised).

Activities where theoretical knowledge and practical experience are balanced

When ranking these various issues, some common patterns emerge between practitioners in the UK and Hong Kong but also some interesting differences. For example, both sets of respondents ranked recruitment and selection and workforce consultation in their top four. Alternatively whereas UK practitioners had the best knowledge/practice combination in staff discipline and performance management  the other two highest ranked issues for Hong Kong practitioners were pay and benefits and employment law.

Activities where knowledge is present, but opportunities for practical application is lacking

In this category of response, practitioners’ knowledge – gained through professional development programmes – is not being fulfilled in the workplace. However, more disparity was identified between the UK and Hong Kong cohorts. In the UK these issues were union negotiation (27%), employer branding (26%) and workforce planning (24%) whereas in Hong Kong the issues where equality issues (33%) and workforce planning (32%).

Activities where practical experience is present, but theoretical knowledge is lacking

The activities that were being carried out by practitioners with what felt like inadequate theoretical knowledge, again, varied between the two cohorts. Common to both was workforce planning (18% of UK respondents, 21% in Hong Kong), but there was disparity on the rank order of other issues. In the UK other areas where knowledge was thought to be inadequate was on pay and benefits (18%) and employer branding (16%) whereas in Hong kong the other stand-out issue was consulting with staff (23%).

Activities where there is neither the knowledge nor the practical experience

For the most part – as might be expected – this category attracted the fewest responses. However, for some issues this was not the case. One issue that particularly stands out is union negotiation, with 23% of UK respondents and 43% of Hong Kong practitioners fitting into this category. The issue of ‘employer branding’ clearly had little resonance in Hong Kong – where, at 28%, ‘no experience or knowledge’ was the most frequent response, though 18% of UK practitioners also responded this way.


Taken as a whole the results suggest strengths in the issues around the broad areas of ‘people resourcing’  (to use the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development terminology), but lower levels of competence on issues of ‘employee relations’. Thus, there are strengths on individual aspects such as dealing with recruitment, employee performance and disciplinary issues, but knowledge gaps on the more collective issues of pay systems, union negotiation (for which, in Hong Kong is paralleled by ‘staff communication’ and ‘engagement’). An outlier to all of this was the apparent gap in knowledge on the issue of employer branding and the implications of HR practice on external reputation.

Authors: Dr Ian Roper, Dr Sophie Gamwell (Middlesex University, London), Dr Paul Higgins, Nancy Jing Yang (City University of Hong Kong) 

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