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By Bill Greenhalgh

Today’s business demands and increased workplace regulatory requirements converge to create the need for a more “professional” human resources profession

It has been several decades since the “personnel manager” has evolved into the present-day “HR professional” when referring to someone who practices human resources management. But what does this title mean?

Do we mean that (1) this individual belongs to a profession, or (2) this individual earns his or her livelihood practicing HR management?
Let’s consider two well-known (non-HR) professionals for guidance: Usain Bolt, Olympic gold medalist and 100-metre sprint world record holder; and Brian Greenspan, arguably Canada’s best known criminal lawyer.

Both are “professionals,” but the meaning changes upon close inspection. Bolt is recognized as a huge talent in his field and is universally acknowledged as a professional athlete not just because he is paid for his efforts but because he is an exceptionally good sprinter.
Greenspan is a brilliant lawyer, and like Bolt, because he is outstanding in his area of expertise, the public acknowledges his professional status. However, he is also recognized as a professional because he is licensed to practice law in Ontario by the Law Society of Upper Canada and so is a member of the legal “profession.”

Being professional vs being a professional

In the first instance, Bolt is considered a professional because he has crossed over from being a talented amateur to someone who has sufficient talent and commitment to earn a living at sprinting. The same is true of professional musicians, golfers or artists.

A member of the “professions” (as in medicine, law or engineering), on the other hand, is considered a professional because they have made a public commitment to a high standard of performance, integrity and public service and they are held to this by the regulatory body that licenses them to practice their profession. In this instance, protection of the public is of greater importance than financial gain.

In parts of the world where HR has made the greatest strides (such as the UK, Australia, the U.S. and Canada), HR is developing into a true profession (as in law or medicine) that requires protection of the public. Ontario has seen the biggest advance, with the passage of the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013, which confers regulatory powers on the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) to oversee the Ontario HR profession in the public interest. The legislation means HRPA-member CHRPs/CHRLs/CHREs are now placed in the same category as doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants.

However, a complicating factor is that “human resources professional” is not a protected title – anyone can call themselves an HR professional (just as anyone can call themselves an engineer or an accountant). This means some individuals who call themselves HR professionals are members of a profession and some are not. The public may not always be clear about the difference; the key is to differentiate those who call themselves HR professionals and those who are members of the HR profession.

Professionalization of HR

We can examine what it means to be an HR professional and a member of the HR profession through the prism of three pillars of professionalism: education; attitudes, values and behaviours; and regulation.

Education and training

Being a professional involves the application of a conceptual or theoretical body of knowledge and requires extensive training and education to acquire. Most professions involve degree-level education offered through the formal educational system, which focuses on the theory necessary to qualify for the profession’s credentials.

After an individual has mastered the theory, they learn how to apply it through a period of on-the-job experience (articling, internships and supervised practice) that transforms academic knowledge into professional competence.

Upon completion of the supervised work experience period, they typically write a final exam of one kind or another, and if successful, become licensed to practice their profession – although sometimes the exam is written before completion of the supervised work experience component.
The entire process is regulated by a professional body overseeing standards of entry to the profession.

A good example would be the route taken to become a lawyer. After someone completes a bachelor’s degree, they apply to law school (that’s been accredited by the provincial law society) after having passed the law school admission test (LSAT). After learning legal theory during three years of law school, would-be lawyers complete an articling period alongside a licensed lawyer who guides them on how to apply theory to law practice and how to act, behave and conduct themselves as lawyers. After completing their articles, they must pass a provincial bar exam to be duly licensed to practice.

Similarly, HRPA is evolving a process to mold HR students into HR professionals. For its Certified Human Resources Leader (CHRL) designation – its professional-level designation – members complete a course of theoretical study (its post-secondary academic program), followed by a knowledge exam, a three-year supervised HR experience period, a jurisprudence exam and, finally, a case-based final exam to ensure all candidates are ready for independent professional practice.

Starting Oct. 1, 2016, there will also be a requirement to complete a two-day professional program that looks at business ethics and the values and behaviours expected of HR professionals.

Attitudes, value and behaviours

When the topic of professionalism comes up in HR circles, there are two common responses. The first goes something like, “I always behave in a professional manner, and my colleagues think of me as such.” The other response is, “I am always professional in what I do, but there are others in our profession who give the rest of us a bad reputation.”

But what does “professionalism” mean in the HR context?

Borrowing a definition of professionalism created by the Chief Justice of Ontario’s Advisory Committee on Professionalism (which was developed to help define professionalism for lawyers), let’s examine HR professionalism through several “building blocks” of professionalism:

Scholarship: This what HR professionals refer to as “competence.” What distinguishes professionals, however, is a sense of obligation to maintain competence in their field linked to an independent process to determine what that requires.

Integrity: This is a cornerstone of professionalism and goes beyond the obligation to observe ethical standards established by the regulator. HR professionals must be counted on to act according to their espoused values despite opportunities to do otherwise.

Honour: This refers to the sense of “higher purpose” or serving some broader societal good beyond the immediate interests of clients and employers that distinguishes professionals. The real test of professionalism comes about when the professional must “safeguard the higher societal value” when the interest of the employer conflicts with the broader public good.

Leadership: Here, leadership means taking a proactive role on matters relating to the profession and its impact on society. This may include speaking out to address a systemic injustice.

Independence: Professional autonomy is a challenging area for HR professionals. The phenomenon of “client capture” has been documented in regards to lawyers. Client capture refers to the situation where a professional begins to identify more with their employer and less with the profession to the extent that the professional begins to lose their independence and their professional judgment becomes clouded.

Civility and collegiality: This is an interesting element for HR since some HR professionals will be members of a professional regulatory body while others will not be. And yet, HR professionals (whether members of the regulatory body or not) cannot stand apart from the profession – individual HR professionals cannot divorce themselves from the rest of the profession. Whenever an HR professional behaves in a way that falls below the expected level of professionalism, it reflects poorly on all HR professionals.

Service to the public good: This refers to the balance between the duty to serve the client and the obligation to serve the public good. Business ethics and professional ethics are not the same and this dichotomy presents challenges to professionals who are guided by a commitment to serve the public good, but are embedded within an organization that may only be interested in maximizing profits.

Balanced commercialism: Income and status cannot become the primary goals of professional life – the primary goal of professional life should be service to others.

The process of professionalization includes the evolution of the attitude and approach to an occupation that members of that profession have towards their profession. Professionalism is one strand in the process of professionalization.

Professional regulation

Governments regulate commercial activity to ensure the public interest is served – including transactions between professionals and consumers. Professional regulation can be thought of as a form of consumer protection.

The most common approach to the regulation of professions in Canada is self-regulation, where an occupational group enters into an agreement with government to formally regulate the activities of its members in the public interest.

Professional self-regulation enables government to have some control over the practice of a profession without direct regulation, but it’s an exceptional privilege. Governments trust professionals to put aside their self-interest in favour of promoting and protecting the public interest.

This follows from the ethos of professionalism – including a commitment to an ideology of service. This ideology of service is an integral aspect of self-regulation.

Like the Law Society of Upper Canada or the Ontario College of Teachers, which regulate the conduct of lawyers and teachers in Ontario, HRPA regulates its members.

As a regulator, HRPA’s mandate is to protect the public by ensuring member HR professionals are competent and act in an ethical manner; and it was granted self-regulatory powers by the Ontario legislature through the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013.

The government felt it was necessary for the HR profession to be regulated for several reasons: HR professionals are privy to huge amounts of private data about employees (including health and financial information); they are responsible for compliance with labour and health and safety regulations; and, generally, HR decisions may have a dramatic impact on the lives of Ontario workers. Ultimately, the time had come for HR professionals to be formally regulated to protect the public interest.

HRPA regulates member HR professionals in a number of ways:

Rules of professional conduct: HRPA members agree to abide by rules that commit them to professional competence, legal requirements, dignity in the workplace, confidentiality, conflict of interest and professional growth and support of other professionals.
Public register: HRPA maintains an official public register of all HRPA members including membership status, certification status, business contact information and discipline history.

Competency framework and professional HR designations (CHRP/CHRL/CHRE): HRPA’s competency-based HR certification framework tests a defined body of knowledge, and the ability to apply that knowledge, at three levels of HR practice: entry-level (CHRP), professional-level (CHRL) and executive-level (CHRE).
Continuing professional development (CPD): HRPA members commit to ongoing CPD to maintain their HR knowledge and abilities. HRPA provides the guidance and professional development that members need to stay current and advance in their careers.

Complaints, investigations and discipline process: HRPA regulates and governs the professional conduct of HRPA members through the articulation and enforcement of a code of ethics, rules of professional conduct and standards of practice. HRPA will investigate complaints against members and can apply discipline if there is a finding of wrongdoing or incompetence after a fair and transparent investigation.

HRPA and the ongoing professionalization of human resources

While HRPA had many of the trappings of a professional regulator since the passage of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, 1990 (such as a professional designation, a code of ethics, continuing professional development requirements, etc.), the HR profession had never really progressed beyond the level of “semi-profession” (i.e., technicians and technologists) in both the mind of the public and against the regulatory standards of Tier 1 professions.

That has all changed over the past six years. During that time, HRPA has “upped its game” to match the standards necessary to be acknowledged as a Tier 1 profession, including the aforementioned rules of professional conduct and public register.

The process accelerated with the passage of the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013 – a public act which gave HRPA official sanction as the regulator of the HR profession in Ontario and places HRPA-member HR professionals on the same regulatory tier as lawyers and engineers. Since that time, HRPA has introduced a modernized HR competency framework that has, at its core, an updated body of knowledge and three new designations that test both that knowledge and the ability to apply it at three levels of human resources practice: entry, professional and executive.

This body of knowledge (ensuring it is the same globally), plus the validation of capability through certification, fair complaints and discipline processes and the obligation to protect the public, are the defining characteristics of professionalism. Accounting and engineering are the same no matter where they are practiced around the world and are founded on a global knowledge base – and the same should apply for human resources.

All these regulatory pieces are in place to elevate the HR profession and HR professionals as a true profession in Ontario.

With our competency framework and similar ongoing activities in other major HR associations, we are moving towards a global HR knowledge base. What we now need to do is change the mindset and convince the public, other business functions and many HR professionals that HR is a true profession.

This is likely the hardest hill to climb – especially in a business world where many cling to the dubious idea that “anyone can do HR” and HR executive spots can be handed to executives from outside the profession. And it’s going to take the combined efforts of HRPA and other forward-thinking HR associations, as well as HR professionals themselves, to sway attitudes in our favour.

However, we have something strong to work with. Today’s business challenges require HR strategy and execution and really demand the skills and knowledge of HR professionals to deal with them effectively. The professional work of a CHRP, CHRL or a CHRE is ultimately the best marketing tool we have to bring attitudes about our profession in line with our new capability.

Bill Greenhalgh is chief executive officer of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

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