Let me try to capture here one of those subtle but profound shifts in perspective that is currently happening in our profession. Where we are in this shift is important because it is a ‘marker’ of our maturity as a profession. This shift is from the ‘designation as service to members’ perspective to the ‘designation as part of a bigger regulatory package’ perspective.
As a first step in the evolution from occupation to profession, a core group of practitioners will take the step of creating a designation. In this initial phase, the designation is ‘sold’ to other practitioners as an opportunity to demonstrate that they have achieved a certain level of professional proficiency. It provides members with an opportunity to put letters after their name. This could be called the ‘internal marketing phase.’
Even in this early phase of professionalization, there is the idea that mechanisms to deal with members who might have behaved inappropriately should exist but these mechanisms often exist on paper only. Another hallmark of the ‘designation as service to members’ perspective is that the burden or obligation aspects of being professionals, are de-emphasized. In the ‘designation as a service to members’ perspective, matters such as rules of professional conduct, professional liability insurance requirements, good character requirements, professional inspections, complaints and discipline processes are relatively neglected. They are ‘on the books’ but not really enacted in any serious way.
This fits into the distinction between professional associations and professional regulatory bodies. Professional associations, which are all about providing services to their members, find the ‘designation as service to members’ perspective quite sympathetic.
The limitations the ‘designation as service to members’ perspective start appearing when the members of the fledgling profession want to be ‘recognized’ by government or the public at large. Sometimes the term ‘legitimization’ is used here.
Simply put, governments don’t recognize designations so that members of a profession can have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have achieved a certain level of professional proficiency or to provide the members of a profession with the opportunity to put letters after their name. The reason why governments recognize professions is to protect the public interest. In fact, governments never ‘recognize designations’ as such, what governments do is to create professional regulatory bodies and give these professional regulatory bodies the mandate, the obligation, and the authority to regulate a profession. Granting a designation is really only one aspect of this broader regulatory package. This could be called the ‘designation as part of a bigger regulatory package’ perspective.
The problem with the ‘designation as a service to members’ perspective is that it ‘dead ends’ rather quickly. To the extent that the profession wants legitimization and recognition from government, it simply cannot get there from the ‘designation as a service to members’ perspective. The only way to get there is to adopt the ‘designation as part of a bigger regulatory package’ perspective. The government really doesn’t care that obtaining a certain designation enhances the career mobility of those who have obtained it. What the government does care about is that the public is protected from the risks and harms that may come from the practice of unregulated professionals.
This is the professional paradox. The more we focus on the benefits for members, the less we will be seen as legitimate in the eyes of government and the public. If we want legitimacy as a profession, we have to start thinking in terms of what is in it for government and the public.
This doesn’t mean that obtaining a designation cannot be good for those who obtain it; it means that designations cannot be understood first and foremost as something that creates value for those who have the designation. This will come, but only if we shift the perspective. We need to think, first and foremost, of the value the designation creates for government and the public. The burdens and obligations of professionalism are exactly those aspects that create value for government and the public.
The professional paradox forces a shift in perspective. If we maintain a ‘designation as service to members’ perspective, the profession simply won’t achieve the legitimacy it wants to achieve. We need to shift to a ‘designation as part of a bigger regulatory package’ because that is where the value is for government and the public and, ultimately, for HR professionals.
Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, HRPA and Special Regulatory Advisor, CCHRA.