Human Resources: In Pursuit of Professional Balance


By Christian Codrington, CHRP

When does a job, move from the status of an occupation to that of a profession and what are some of the implications of achieving this status?

HR associations across Canada are at varying stages of self-regulating the discipline of HR. Those initiatives are generating discussion on the issue of the professionalization of HR and what that could mean for the members of the HR community.

Models Determine Professional Status
Much has been written about what must be in place to take an occupation to the status of a profession. A profession is a learned calling, requiring skills, a specialized body of knowledge, an acquired level of expertise and judgement to influence stakeholders. Traditionally accepted professions such as medicine or law emphasize ethical conduct, possession of specialized training and skills, and collegiate control of standards independent of any organizational setting.

The world in which we currently operate has evolved and the growth of managerial occupations has complicated the traditional definition of a profession. When writers list a number of criteria that must be met in order for a group within an occupation to be considered a profession, that group can be said to espousing a trait model of analysis. Common standards of entry, a community of practice, an ethical code of conduct, a set of core competencies and a requirement for training and certification are a few of the criteria or traits required of group of “professionals.”

The control model is an alternate approach to viewing a group’s level of professional status. The main focus of the control model is whether the members of a profession can autonomously assess the needs of its clients and provide solutions to meet those needs. To help with this analysis, it is important to examine the credibility and power that the members of the group possess in the eyes of its stakeholders.

HR Analysis Cause for Optimism
D. Pohler and Chelsea Willness recently conducted an analysis of HR in Canada to assess the current degree of professionalization of human resources.  Their informed analysis leaves readers optimistic about the value and impact human resources has achieved, especially in the last two decades. They conclude that HR has attained the traits of many established professions, while maintaining its own unique qualities, and having gained support and credibility in the eyes of many of external stakeholders.

The authors also suggest something that we in the profession know well and with which we struggle—and that is that HR is still in “the external stages of establishing external legitimacy.” Nonetheless, HR has achieved a high degree of legitimacy among post-secondary institutions and within the business community as demand for certified professionals increases and the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation gains greater prominence.

Pohler and Willness also quote a number of writers who comment on how far HR professionals still have to go to achieve professional status. For example, do HR professionals advise against a backdrop of ethical standards or are they simply an arm of management, doing as they are asked?

Public Interests Paramount
In both the trait and control model of professionalism, a key expectation of members of self-governed professions is an acceptance of the legal and ethical obligations to hold the public interest paramount.

This could be seen as a daunting task, especially if a member of the profession conducts their practice within an organizational setting, where superiors or other members of the management team make requests that may be at odds with a protecting the public interest.

While many writers say the value of human resources is achieved when its professionals focus is solely on organizational priorities, the mark of a true profession is when its members balance attaining organization priorities with a higher set of professional values and ethical standards—balancing technical expertise with becoming the organization’s guiding moral compass.

Ethics and Ongoing Development
It is through a well development codes of ethics, conduct and ongoing professional development that colleges and associations can support their self-regulated membership in fulfilling this mandate. Where a code of ethics addresses issues such as moral conduct and intent, a thorough code of conduct sets professional standards concerning ability, competence and standards of business practice.

As HRMA continues down this self-regulatory path, we will work with the other provincial HR associations to regularly review the Canadian Council of Human Resources Associations’s (CCHRA) Code of Ethics required of CHRP holders, as well as develop a comprehensive code of conduct for our membership.

Moreover, whether a CHRP or practicing HR generalist, all members of the association would be urged to conduct their practice in keeping with the various codes.

The practice of human resources has matured to a profession. Adherence to codes of ethics and conduct, ongoing requirements for professional development, redress and practice review are simply additions to formalize the contributions of the profession.

Christian Codrington, CHRP BBA is director of regulatory affairs and member value at HRMA.

(PeopleTalk Summer 2015)

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  1. Thanks, Christian, for a thoughtful and knowledgeable article on this very important topic. Acting in the public interest, especially when opposed by corporate requests, is a necessary but difficult course. In my opinion, it is one the most important distinguishing characteristics between the two choices you cited: occupation and profession. I look forward to hearing others’ opinions on this. Best wishes.

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