Leadership Matters
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By Phil Wilson, SHRP

With last year’s passage of the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013, HR professionals will continue to focus on enhancing the “professionalism” of what it means to truly become a human resources “professional.”

My colleague Claude Balthazard, HRPA’s VP Regulatory Affairs, examined this topic recently in an article he wrote for Queens University’s industrial relations journal.
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), Claude explores HR professionalism through the prism of 10 “building blocks” of professionalism.


This what HR professionals refer to as “competence.” What distinguishes professionals, however, is a sense of obligation to maintain competence in their field, and that professionals don’t entirely decide for themselves what they need to keep up with.
HR professionals should feel a sense of obligation or duty to maintain competence in their field and do so in a disciplined way.


Integrity is one of the cornerstones of professionalism and goes beyond the obligation to observe ethical standards established by the professional governing body. The idea is that HR professionals can be counted on to act according to their espoused values despite opportunities to do otherwise.


Honour means 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.

As Claude says, many HR professionals may be uneasy with this concept. HR professionals understand that they are often the ones to protect the interests of employees, but are also aware that there is often a price to pay for pushing back and taking a stand. And without government recognition – i.e., licensing – then HR professionals have little support and are far more vulnerable in these situations than, say, lawyers.

It creates a catch-22; to be considered as a true profession, HR must be seen as safeguarding a higher societal value. However, until HR is widely seen to be a true profession, many HR professionals will consider it risky to do so. Nonetheless, it is a risk we have agreed to accept when we chose to become true professionals.


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.


Professional autonomy is another 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.


Like many professions, HR has been the subject of criticism that requires a balance to be struck. On one hand, HR professionals cannot dismiss criticism; and, to the extent that those criticisms are valid, the profession should address them. Nonetheless, it is important that such criticism not get in the way of pride in the profession.

Spirit and enthusiasm

A professional requires energy, drive, initiative, commitment, involvement and enthusiasm. This too appears to be valid for HR professionals.

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 professional 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.

Like other embedded professionals, HR professionals need to work out how to make public service coexist with the profit motive.

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

As noted at the outset, these defining “building blocks” were developed for lawyers; however, the definition appears to work well for HR professionals in the sense that each element seems to apply equally well. In time, the HR profession will likely develop its own definition of professionalism, but for now, this definition provides a good starting point.

Phil Wilson, SHRP is chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

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