Does HR Really Want to Professionalize?

Do we really want to professionalize?

That is a really good question—but there are layers to that question.  For some years, the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) asked the following question on its annual member survey: ‘Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?’  The results appear to show an overwhelming support for the professionalization of HR.  But then again, professionalization is not defined in the survey; we really don’t know what respondents have in mind when they think of professionalization.  In previous Queen’s IRC articles (Balthazard, 2014a, 2014b, 2015a, 2015b) we have seen that professionalization is a quid-pro-quo—that is, the profession has to give to get.  The get is easy—enhanced status, respect, and remuneration.  The give, however, is discussed much less often.  Did the survey respondents carefully consider the gives and the gets of professionalization and decide that the net benefit of professionalization was positive before answering the question?  Probably not.  But this is something that needs to be worked through.  If the support for professionalization is simply a reflection of the idea that it would be nice to have more status, respect, and remuneration as HR professionals, then the support may be shallow.  If professionalization is sold solely based on its benefits, then there is the danger of feeding into this shallow support.  Deep support for professionalization requires that the gives be considered as much as the gets.

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Would Roger Martin consider HRM to be a profession?

To be frank, the academic literature on what makes a profession is not very accessible. Here is something of a different take on the topic. For some time, there has been an ongoing debate in the Harvard Business Review as to whether business management is, or should be, a profession. The debate started with an article written by Khurana, Nohria, and Penrice in 2005 entitled Is business management a profession?(1) A cogent rebuttal was published a few years later by Richard Barker in a 2010 article entitled The Big Idea: No, Management Is Not a Profession.(2) The debate drew commentary from many sources, one such commentary was by Roger Martin in an HBR Blog dated July 2010 entitled Management is not a profession — but it can be taught.(3) In this blog, Martin laid out his profession calculus:

So my basic calculus is as follows: If quality can’t be determined in advance and cost of failure is high, the market in question will attract regulation. And if the product/service is delivered by a single identifiable individual, it will become a regulated profession. If it doesn’t attract regulation, it doesn’t matter a whit whether an activity is deemed by its participants to be a ‘profession.’

It is this calculus and its application to Human Resources Management (HRM) which is the subject of this article.

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Successful Professionalization: What Can We Learn From Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985)?

In this article, we take one of the more interesting and useful models of professionalization and apply it to the Human Resources field to see what insights can be had.

There are a number of models of professionalization, and of those one of the more interesting and useful models is that of Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985). What makes this model so interesting and useful is that unlike other models it has a functional approach rather than a descriptive approach—that is, it looks at the process of professionalization (see figure 1). We should introduce a caveat at the start, however. The Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985) model is, after all, just a model. The model is derived from observation and reasoning but not empirical data. Indeed, in regards to professionalization, despite the search for general principles, each situation needs to be considered as a case study. The point is that models of professionalization like the one proposed by Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985) should be considered for the insights they may bring about, but they are not ‘laws’ and are not necessarily correct or the only way things can happen.

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What does ‘professionalism’ mean for HR professionals?

The desire for HR professionals to be accorded the respect and status of being true professionals is a theme that goes back many decades; and there is no evidence to suggest that this desire has waned over the years. In 2013, the Human Resources Professionals Association asked the following question on its annual member survey: “Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?”—89.4% of respondents agreed with the statement. This represents as much agreement as one is ever likely to find on any question. (Human Resources Professionals Association, 2013).

But there is an interesting contradiction here. The contradiction lies in that for something that is seemingly so important to HR professionals; the topic of “professionalism” rarely appears in HR publications or HR conferences. When the topic of professionalism comes up in HR circles, there are two responses which are often heard. The first is a response that goes something like “I always behave in a professional manner, and my clients and colleagues think of me as such.” The other response goes something like “I am always professional in what I do, but there are others in our profession that give the rest of us a bad reputation.” And yet, in a 2011 survey conducted by the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Center on the State of HR in Canada (Juniper & Hill, 2011), the authors noted that those HR professionals who reported that they are “pessimistic” or “not sure” about the future of HR were, in general, concerned about the lack of professionalism in the profession and the credentials that are required in order to obtain the CHRP designation.

By way of contrast, some of the established professions do not seem to take “professionalism” for granted and certainly do not think that the topic is an “undiscussable.” A bit more than a decade ago, in response to concerns that had been expressed about a decline in professionalism among lawyers, the Chief Justice of Ontario struck an Advisory Committee on Professionalism. The document Elements of Professionalism was authored by the Committee’s Working Group on the Definition of Professionalism. (2001)

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The Professionalization of Human Resources

On its annual member survey, the Human Resources Professionals Association asks the following question: “Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?”  In 2013, 89.4% of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement—this represents as much agreement as one is likely to find on any question.  Clearly, the professionalization of HR is an issue that is important to HR professionals—but what does it mean to professionalize HR?  Where do we currently stand?  And what are the next steps or challenges ahead?

Millerson (1964) defined professionalization as the process by which an occupation undergoes transformation to become a profession.  More recently, Hodson and Sullivan (2012) stated that professionalization can be understood as the effort by an occupational group to raise its collective standing by taking on the characteristics of a profession.  Borrowing from these definitions, we can define the professionalization of Human Resources as the process by which Human Resource professionals collectively strive to achieve the recognition and status that is accorded to the established professions by emulating or adopting the defining characteristics of the established professions.

The process of professionalization is complex—it also doesn’t help that there is a lack of consensus as to the meaning of the term ‘professionalization’, or the term ‘professionalism’ for that matter (Evans, 2008; Hargreaves and Goodson, 1996).  Most of the literature on professionalization stems from the field of sociology.  When sociologists think of ‘professionalism’ they usually focus on the institutional aspects such as the existence of a regulatory body, legal recognition as a profession, formal training programs, and the existence of codes of ethics.  This is different than what most non-sociologists have in mind when they think of ‘professionalism’ (see for instance, the document entitled ‘Elements of professionalism’ authored by the Chief Justice of Ontario Advisory Committee on Professionalism, 2001).  Here the focus is often on individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of the members of a professional group.  But even the sociological literature has begun to give more attention to those individual aspects of professionalism (Evans, 2008).  Indeed, the term ‘professionality,’ introduced by Hoyle (1974), has begun to be used to refer to the individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of members of a professional group.

Although the distinction between ‘professionalism’ and ‘professionality’ has certainly not made its way into common usage, the distinction between the institutional aspects and the individual aspects of professionalism and professionalization is useful and particularly germane to the profession of HR at this point in time.

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