HR leaders talk about HR professional designations

How important are designations for HR professionals looking to land a plum job?

Barbara Means Thistle
Vice-president of employee experience
This Vancouver-based marketing and real estate company employs 507 people and is a subsidiary of resort company Intrawest.

The Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation is a good indication of strong technical knowledge of HR, but it shouldn’t be mandatory for all HR professionals, says Barbara Means Thistle, vice-president of employee experience at real estate company Playground.

“I don’t have a CHRP designation and I have risen quickly to the senior ranks of HR,” says Means Thistle, who has 20 years of HR experience and has worked as an HR and change management consultant. “I have a great respect for the technical side of HR, but I also bring skills in the area of communications, relationship management, service delivery and business acumen, which have allowed me to sit at the executive table.”

If HR wants a seat at that table, HR professionals have to be creative and think outside the box, Means Thistle says. To help them achieve this, designation training should include more soft skills and business education, she adds.

“HR teams are making great progress at getting and staying at the strategy table,” she says. “We will continue to hold these seats to some degree by our technical expertise, but more because of our relationship management skills, strategic thinking, service delivery orientation and business acumen.”

A president or CEO isn’t going to care about whether or not HR professionals have designations, says Means Thistle. Instead, they want to know that HR understands the business and how to attract and keep talent.

“A lot of that comes not from designations, it comes from experience,” she says. To supplement this experience, HR professionals should look to business courses and training in negotiation, relationship management and communication, she adds.

“It’s not that I don’t support the CHRP, but I believe that it needs to be complemented with this other kind of training and mentoring,” she says.

The Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations (CCHRA), which regulates the CHRP, could incorporate this kind of training, just as other professional associations have, says Means Thistle. About 10 years ago, the accounting, engineering and medical professions started revamping their requirements to incorporate soft skills into the training, she says.

“They were getting really technically strong certified professionals who couldn’t communicate. They could design, they could do the analytics, they could do all the technical work, but they couldn’t communicate it. They couldn’t work in partnership, they couldn’t be flexible,” she says. “They had to start teaching them these communication skills and relationship skills. They had to put a dedicated focus on it.”

Designations definitely have their place in HR, says Means Thistle, especially in specific technical fields. For instance, when hiring a payroll or compensation leader, she looks for the appropriate designation, be it a Certified Payroll Manager (CPM) or a Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS). However, she suggests junior HR employees “try out” the profession before investing in a designation they may not need in the long term.

Mary Wagner
Director of human resources.
Concordia University College of Alberta
Located in Edmonton, this degree-granting private college employs 500.

The HR department at Concordia University College of Alberta, a degree-granting private college owned and operated by the Lutheran Church-Canada, was established only 10 years ago.

About five years after it became a degree-granting institution in 1987, the college, which has about 2,500 students, employs about 500 faculty and staff, decided it was large enough to need an HR department. Senior management approached Wagner, who was the administrative assistant to the vice-president academic at the time, to see if she was interested in taking the training needed to head up the new department.

She completed a two-year certificate program in HR management at the University of Alberta. That was when she learned about and joined the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA). Since joining in 1995, she has held various council positions, including program chair, president of the Alberta and North chapter and national president. She obtained her IPMA Certified Professional (IPMA-CP) designation in 2002.

The way Wagner sees it, having an HR designation is not a must. But if one were to be designated, it should be a designation that meets national or international standards — unlike those that used to be offered by some provincial associations.

“Not having (a designation) doesn’t suggest that someone working in the field is deficient in anyway. Nor does being certified guarantee that the holder will find employment,” says Wagner. “But I think it does demonstrate a basic level of competence. And even more important than that is what it says about the individual regarding his or her commitment to the profession and his or her desire to be recognized as a professional.”

When hiring people into her department, Wagner looks for either the IPMA-CP designation or the CHRP designation. When filling a payroll position, she would look for the Certified Payroll Management (CPM) designation, and to fill the records keeping position she would give preference to someone with a Certified Records Management (CRM) designation.

All else being equal, having such designations would favour someone in her eyes.

The support the college offers to HR staff includes membership fees associated with belonging to a professional association as well as the costs for all professional development activities aimed at meeting the requirements for recertification.

“The institution would allow you to serve on executive councils and conference committees — because you do get points towards recertification — attend workshops and seminars or take courses” to a maximum of $2,500, says Wagner.

However, Wagner also sees herself as having an important role in ensuring her direct reports perform at a level such that they meet the standards of the profession at all times.

“In an HR department such as ours, the responsibility to ensure that all good practices and standards of the profession are upheld falls on me,” she says. “So it’s up to me to ensure that the payroll administrator, for example, has the competencies required, with or without certification.”

Referring to her own IPMA-CP designation, Wagner said it has “enabled me to stay current, access professional development opportunities and network with professionals — in Canada and around the world.”

She has also seen a change in attitudes towards the IPMAcertification. “Around the time I was on the first executive council, there was more reluctance to acknowledge that (certification) was necessary. But I’ve seen that change. People have come around.”

Joan Mitchell
Vice-president of human resources
Moneris Solutions
The Toronto-based debit and credit card payment processing company employs 1,250 staff in North America, most of them in Canada.

The CHRP is a good way to lend credibility to a still burgeoning profession, says Moneris’ vice-president of human resources Joan Mitchell.

However, there are still many business people who don’t know HR has its own designations, be it the CHRP or more specialized designations, she adds.

“HR associations across Canada are working very hard to raise the profiles of these designations,” she says. “But they have so much farther to go.”

Raising awareness in the business community about the designations is vital for the success of the profession.

No one would dare question an accountant with a CA (chartered accountant) designation about an accounting matter, but it’s different when it comes to HR issues where everyone, regardless of background, has an opinion about matters such as compensation and recruitment, says Mitchell.

“HR is a science, not an art,” she says. “Programs implemented badly cost a company a fortune while programs implemented well can have a huge impact.”

It’s only as the certification and the profession gain more respect that HR professionals will command more authority, she says.

While designations are important, the CHRP on its own isn’t enough to make an HR professional successful at Moneris.

“The dynamics in our workplace and in so many others across the world make it impossible for the outcomes of any HR transaction or business transaction to be predicted through case study or classroom training,” says Mitchell.

Instead it’s the combination of education, the networking that comes from being part of a provincial association and experience that makes a well-rounded HR professional, she says.

Moneris has doubled in size since its inception five years ago, when it started with 625 employees, which means Mitchell has been busy filling positions. When looking for a new HR professional, Mitchell first looks for experience but it needs to be specific to the job in question.

When she was recruiting for a new payroll manager, a payroll designation was a must-have. But she also looked for years of experience and an interest in related HR fields such as compensation.

“The designation is a real nice thing to home in on, but you would never want to do that without documented experience,” she says

Someone fresh out of university shouldn’t think the CHRP will provide a leg up the ladder without the right experience.

Instead of counting on the classroom work or the CHRP to get in the door, students should consider co-op placements to get that invaluable experience that makes them stand out, says Mitchell. “Workplace experience, albeit short, is exceedingly valuable.”

In fact, when hiring she looks for the more specific, or what she calls scientific, designations, such as CPM (Certified Payroll Manager) CEBS (Certified Employee Benefits Specialist) and CGP (Certified Compensation Professional).

“Our preference in recruiting would always be to see the higher education and the science designations where people can actually learn a skill which is transferrable and then proceed to their CHRP as an overarching generalist program.”

David Rathburn
Chief talent officer
Bell Aliant
This Halifax-based telecommunications giant employs 10,500 people and operates in six provinces.

Currently, it’s possible to climb the ranks of the HR department and become an HR executive without a CHRP designation and many professionals will continue to be able to do so in the future, says David Rathburn, chief talent officer at Bell Aliant. It’s the experience, not the designation, which is of paramount importance, he says.

“However, I think more and more HR professionals will look to have their experience recognized through these types of designations,” says Rathburn, who has a CHRP himself.

Not only does a CHRP indicate the level of commitment and dedication that a professional has to the HR profession, he says, it gives the professional a broader knowledge base.

“It helps individuals be exposed to far more than they would likely be exposed to within a single organization or within a single career,” he says. “(This) improves and strengthens the ability of HR professionals across the country to make a difference in their organizations.”

The CHRP also gives the profession a common voice and provides a shared, national standard, which gives HR more credibility, he says.

“I’m very pleased that human resources professionals are coming together to create these types of national programs and national standards. I think that speaks to the maturing of the industry,” says Rathburn. “That will really accelerate the knowledge and therefore the value add that HR can bring to their organizations.”

When he’s hiring a new HR generalist, where the practitioner works in partnership with a line manager to meet her HR needs, Rathburn looks for experience that shows the individual appreciates the business priorities of the unit he will be working in and can match the right HR programs to meet those priorities.

While experience is still important when hiring an HR specialist, Rathburn also looks for the appropriate certification. The certification shows the individual has proven and demonstrable knowledge in that area of specialty, he says.

“For specialists, designations are very, very beneficial,” says Rathburn.

The programs required to attain these designations expose people to new and different issues, he says.

“Then as their organization encounters a new issue, these people can draw on their learning,” says Rathburn.

Even more importantly, designations provide a network of professionals who share current information and thinking in the field, he says.

Whereas a certification often provides only a snapshot of learning at a particular time, the people who make up the network that comes with the designation are constantly learning new things and can be an invaluable source for other HR practitioners, he says.

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