Raise HR’s stature by raising the bar for qualification

HR people are well-educated and highly skilled, but they suffer from low professional self-esteem
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/28/2005

If HR professionals hope to get the respect they seek, they may need to set more rigorous controls for who can work in human resources, says a leading HR academic and author of a new report on the profession.

HR people are well-educated and highly skilled, but they suffer from low professional self-esteem, said Lisbeth Claus, associate professor of global HR at Williamette University in Oregon, and author of

The Maturing Profession of Human Resources: Worldwide and Regional View

.

“We don’t feel that we are being respected as business partners. And if you don’t believe in yourself how are you going to get others to believe in you?” she said.

The study is based on a 2003 global survey of more than 4,300 HR professionals, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and intended to provide a snapshot of the evolution of the still relatively young profession.

In part, Claus set out to establish how much HR meets the definition of a profession established by Eliot Freidson’s 2001 book,

Professionalism: The Third Logic

. In some ways HR clearly ranks as a profession though in others there is work to be done.

For example, more than 90 per cent of survey respondents agree or strongly agree that HR is based on a body of skills and knowledge derived from abstract concepts and theories, one of the defining elements of a profession.

However when it comes to recognition of HR contributions and credentials, also defining characteristics, results are not as good. Only 43 per cent of respondents think senior executives view HR as a business partner, for example.

And even many HR people undervalue HR certifications. “HR practitioners give professional certification little credibility,” states the report. “Almost one-third of HR practitioners (31 per cent) disagree or strongly disagree that professional certification is needed to work in HR.” In part this could be because certification isn’t available in most countries. But even in North America, “HR practitioners only consider it necessary for advancement in HR,” wrote Claus.

People can do as much as they want on their own to prove they can contribute to their organization, but if people are still doing work in HR with no HR education, experience or credentials then HR will continue to suffer from a lack of professional credibility, she said.

To improve HR’s stature, changes can’t be made by HR people working on their own. It will take a group effort emanating, most likely, from HR associations, she said.

She stressed that her research is different than most other studies of the profession, because she took a sociological instead of an individual perspective. In the latter, the emphasis is on how HR professionals improve their stature and standing within the current context, improving competencies and improving business knowledge and so on.

The sociological perspective looks at changing the context itself; restructuring the very foundations of the perceptions and attitudes about HR. Thus, if HR practitioners want to raise their stature, the profession might be better off with a concerted, co-ordinated effort to raise the threshold for entry into the profession, she said.

Restrict entry

At the moment there are no restrictions on who can call themselves HR practitioners, she said. Other professions build a monopoly and won’t let anyone else do their work. “I am not saying we should or shouldn’t do that,” she said. But if the goal is to earn greater recognition for the profession, then there has to be some way to exert greater control over who is practising HR, she said.

Similarly if HR practitioners want to promote the profession and improve its position in the non-HR executive mindset and attract more qualified people, more focus should be on young people in colleges and universities, said Claus.

“Spend some energy looking at education,” she said. “If you are a profession, you accredit programs and you are very worried about that. This is where people are making decisions, and accreditation attracts high quality students and high quality faculty.”

An increase in the number of people receiving their professional certifications would help improve the recognition of HR’s contributions, she said.

The Society for Human Resource Management in the United States has done a “wonderful job” of setting high standards and promoting the profession, she said. When people see the letters behind their name, it means something. “It is difficult to get certified in the United States, so it is a big deal.”

“I think it is a good idea to restrict entry (into HR),” said Paul Juniper, a former president of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario and a key player in the development of national standards for Canada’s HR certification, the Certified Human Resource Professional (CHRP). “I am all for raising the standards and making this into a profession,” he said.

“We need to widen the funnel to let more people into the education and training system and at the same time restrict it at the top.”

It’s the difference between certification versus licensure, he said. Licensure literally makes it illegal for anyone to engage in an occupation without a licence. “The argument against licensing HR is that people are not in physical danger if people are not licensed to practise HR in an organization,” he said.

The British are chartering the profession in much the same way accountants are chartered, said Juniper. This scenario is likely the most feasible in Canada.

Organizations with trained and qualified HR professionals will outperform those with untrained, inexperienced people handling HR duties. Whether or not governments should legislate that is another matter, he said.

“I actually believe in licensing,” said Monica Belcourt, a professor of HR at York University in Toronto and prominent champion of the CHRP in Canada.

But licensure will not come any time soon, she said. “I don’t think there is the political will in this generation of HR leaders to pursue that.” A lot of time and effort has gone into advancing the profession by establishing and promoting the CHRP and developing national standards. And many senior people who have been working in HR since before there was certification still don’t see the value in it.

But the next generation of HR leaders, those people who take it as a given that they need a CHRP, will start to wonder why anyone should be able to work in HR jobs without it, she said.

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