Science behind CHRP designation on thin ground (Letter to the editor)

Imagine the scene at an NDP policy convention where a delegate stood at the microphone and offered up the view that the private sector might play a useful role in rescuing Canada’s ailing health-care system. The condemnation from fellow brothers and sisters would be sure and swift. Attacking “first principles” is always a risky game. The faithful don’t want their world-view disturbed.

John Platz’s recent piece “Parents aren’t certified, why should HR professionals be” (CHRR, April 9, 2001) contains a heresy no less provocative to those who see HR through the prism of HRPAO values. But before I defend the article, let me state up front that Platz is my boss, and even though we share similar philosophies in this area I’m also hoping that this letter will generate huge positive feedback and (hopefully financial) reinforcement.

Those who support the CHRP designation maintain human resources has risen up from the dark days when failed executives were demoted to the personnel office and put in charge of the annual picnic. Today, the profession is “practised” by “experts” no different than lawyers or doctors or accountants. And thank goodness too. What with today’s complicated labour laws, benefits regulations, business mergers and human rights challenges. Put yesterday’s well meaning personnel guy up to these pressures and there’s no end to the mischief that would ensue.

That’s why we need the CHRP. A common curriculum that lets the world know that its holder is qualified to handle anything that comes.

Then Platz comes along and suggests that HR is like parenting — “not an exact science.” Now that’s throwing down the gauntlet. If HR cannot claim a foundation of knowledge that goes beyond mere opinion or life experience, what good is it? If our credentials are not backed by the certainties of science, where theory is validated by predictive validity, why would anyone want to listen to us?

The HRPAO has always peddled the CHRP as a ticket to career advancement. If the world begins to suspect that our claimed expertise is nothing more than a thin veneer of trumped-up fancy sounding phrases, how long till our office door says “personnel” again?

Monica Belcourt (co-ordinator of HR programs at York University) was first off the line with a defensive volley (CHRR, May 7, 2001). Dealing with Platz’s teenage truant is exactly the kind of example, she suggests, where a science-based approach is required. Don’t hit him, ground him, deprive him, or do nothing. “Any student who has passed the comprehensive provincial examination given by the HRPAO would know how to more effectively handle performance problems by providing feedback and reinforcers for performing as desired.” This is the preferred approach because it’s supported by science. B.F. Skinner said so.

In my view, Belcourt’s response is one example of what’s wrong with the ongoing push to credentialize the HR function. The claimed certitude of science-backed research is not nearly as compelling as she would hope.

The CHRP graduate will know a lot of useful things. But their knowledge is not equivalent to, say, that of an accountant. The accountant’s certification is a means of assuring stockholders that the financial status of a company is reported in a certain way. Not a better way, or a science-based way, but a way that is standardized. This builds trust in investors. Similarly, the doctor is licensed as a means of assuring the public that their treatment methods follow a standard model of medical care.

Is HR the same kind of profession? Can we really say that there are “standard” answers to questions about reward structures or attendance management systems or fair treatment policies? Are there any perennial organizational problems that demand of the HR practitioner a strict adherence to a set method of approach or practice?

More troubling still is Belcourt’s suggestion that “we should move beyond certification of the HR profession, and emulate other professions such as accounting, engineering and nursing by requiring those who practice HR to be licensed.”

The licensing bodies of professions like law, engineering, and accounting exist, in part, to referee disputes between the professional and the consumer of their services. The customer who relies on an engineer’s bridge building advice may understandably want redress if the bridge collapses in a stiff breeze. But HR’s customer is almost always internal to the organization. Are we seriously advancing the proposition that HR professionals take out errors and omissions insurance and potentially find themselves defending lawsuits filed by their own company who relied on bad advice to its detriment? “You told me our final offer to the union would get us a deal, and now we have a strike, you idiot.”

Those of us toiling in the field of HR face complex, difficult problems on a regular basis. The solutions we advance are sometimes boilerplate, sometimes theory-based, sometimes constrained by the limited appetite for change in organizations and sometimes based on a hunch. This is nothing to apologize for. “Best practices” are a way of institutionalizing the tried and the safe route. Those who win are breaking out into uncharted territory where the textbooks don’t help much. The “credential envy” stoking the furnace down at the HRPAO won’t deliver us to the promised land.

Ernie Gec
Belwood, Ont.

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