Top Stories
Pin It

Public opinions shed a bleak light on how the profession is perceived

By Claude Balthazard, PhD, C.Psych, CHRL


Professionalism is at the confluence of two important themes for human resources professionals. For one, professionalism is closely linked to the process of professionalization – the meta-strategy that the profession has pursued for decades.

Professionalism is also what makes self-regulation work and is vitally important to the promotion and protection of the public interest.
The term professionalism has two meanings. Interestingly, when sociologists use the term they think of the characteristics of the institutions and how the profession is organized. However, most think of professionalism as it applies to individuals – the attitudes, values and behaviours of members of the profession. When professionalism is used to refer to the attitudes, values and behaviours of an individual, it often refers to one or more of the characteristics below:

  • Maturity of character
  • Dedication to one’s craft
  • A disciplined approach to one’s work
  • The ability to set aside one’s personal feelings and attitudes
  • Emotional self-control
  • Trustworthiness
  • Honesty
  • Modesty
  • High ethical standards
  • High standards of quality in one’s work
  • Intrinsically motivated

When the topic of professionalism comes up in HR circles, the response most often heard goes something like, “I always behave in a professional manner, and my clients and colleagues think of me as such.”

Unfortunately, this perception doesn’t seem to be shared by the public at large.

In January 2018, HRPA commissioned Ipsos, a polling firm, to ask two questions of the Ontario public: “How would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of (HR professionals)?” and, “Do you have a positive or negative opinion of (HR professionals)?”

These questions were chosen because they had been used by the Gallup Organization and Insights West respectively. The two questions were asked of different samples to avoid bias and each sample had upwards of 1,000 respondents.

In the first survey, 29 per cent of respondents gave a “high” or “very high” response for registered HR professionals. For 2017, Gallup ratings ranged from a high of 82 per cent for nurses to a low of eight per cent for lobbyists. Medical doctors and engineers achieved ratings of 65 per cent and accountants a rating of 39 per cent. The occupations/professions closest to HR professionals would be nursing home operators at 26 per cent and auto mechanics at 32 per cent.

However, we find that regulated occupations/professions tend to occupy the upper half of the list, whereas unregulated occupations/professions tend to occupy the lower half. When compared to regulated professions, HR professionals are quite low with only lawyers obtaining a lower score at 18 per cent.

In the second survey, 64 per cent of respondent gave a “somewhat positive” or “very positive” response for registered human resource professionals. Inserting that result in the Insights West table, this comes out as an average score. Registered HR professionals were ranked 17th out of 28 occupations/professions.

Again, as with the Gallup results, regulated professions figure prominently among the more highly rated occupations/professions. Regulated professions occupy nine out of the top 13 occupations/professions. Of the 11 regulated professions surveyed, registered HR professionals fell in at number 10. Only lawyers, with a rating of 51 per cent, fell below registered human resource professionals. Accountants achieved a rating of 81 per cent. The occupations/professions closest to HR professionals were building contractors at 58 per cent, athletes at 66 per cent and judges and journalists both at 67 per cent.

The results for both questions were very similar. In both cases, the results are average in comparison to all occupations, but quite low in comparison to other regulated professions.

What does this mean?

Clearly, the public at large does not seem to think as much of the honesty and ethical standards of human resources professionals as human resources professionals do.
At one end of the spectrum of explanations is the idea that the public has got it wrong and just doesn’t understand HR professionals. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that HR professionals have got it wrong and overestimate their degree of professionalism. As is usually the case, the truth is likely somewhere in between. Of course, it may be that the conduct of some “bad apples” has a disproportionate impact on public perception.
What the public uses to develop their perceptions of HR professionals is not well understood, but the main point is that as HR professionals, we need to pay attention to how the profession and its practitioners are perceived by the public.

Claude Balthazard, PhD, C.Psych., CHRL, is the registrar and vice president, regulation at HRPA



Pin It