Is HR a ‘semiprofession?’

The term ‘semiprofession’ is used, at least in some circles, to refer to occupations which have many of the features of a profession, but are not considered to be quite ‘true’ professions.  Not surprisingly, the term is controversial and the lines between profession and semiprofession are often quite blurred.  The term ‘semiprofession’ itself is based on a comparison where the semiprofessions fall short of a standard defined by the true professions.  From this perspective, who would want to say that they are a member of a ‘semiprofession?’  Nonetheless, the concept exists and does appear relevant to HR; so let’s have a closer look.

There are different types of semiprofessions.  Many semiprofessions evolved to assist or support professions; other semiprofessions operate independently but with a more limited scope of practice.   For example, a dentist would be considered a professional, whereas a dental hygienist would likely be considered a semiprofessional.  In engineering, an engineer would be considered a professional, whereas an engineering technologist or technician would be considered a semiprofessional. Likewise, in law, a lawyer would be considered a professional, and a paralegal might be considered a semiprofessional.   (It is interesting to note that there is no other profession that HR assists or supports, or another profession that HR might be considered a ‘limited scope’ version of.  This may turn out to be an important factor in the future evolution of HR.)

The Wikipedia entry for ‘semiprofession’ gives a list of twelve criteria which distinguish semiprofessions from professions.  This list was originally published by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) way back in 1976.  The list is as follows:

  1. Lower in occupational status
  2. Shorter training periods
  3. Lack of societal acceptance that the nature of the service and/or the level of expertise justifies the autonomy that is granted to the professions
  4. A less specialized and less highly developed body of knowledge and skills
  5. Markedly less emphasis on theoretical and conceptual bases for practice
  6. A tendency for the individual to identify with the employment institution more and with the profession less
  7. More subject to administrative and supervisory surveillance and control
  8. Less autonomy in professional decision making, with accountability to superiors rather than to the profession
  9. Management by persons who have themselves been prepared and served in that semiprofession
  10. A preponderance of women
  11. Absence of the right of privileged communication between client and professional
  12. Little or no involvement in matters of life and death

According to this list of criteria, most would agree that the HR profession falls in the ‘semiprofession’ category.

The distinction between semiprofession and profession explains a lot of what has been happening in the HR profession over the last while.  The introduction of a degree requirement, the push for regulatory status, and the pursuit of a public act all seem to point to a semiprofession that is doing its best to become a true profession.

Understanding the distinction between semiprofessions and professions brings insights to the nature of the changes that the HR profession is currently undergoing not only at the institutional level but at the individual level as well.

The distinction between semiprofession and profession explains a lot of the diversity in the opinions of HR professionals on a whole variety of topics.  The shift from semiprofession to profession is something that plays out at the individual level as well as at the institutional level.  Indeed, on just about all of the defining criteria above, there are some who are comfortable with the semiprofessional position; others would like to see more movement towards professional position.  For example, individuals who come from the semiprofessional perspective are more likely to identify with their employer and less with the profession; individuals who come from the professional perspective are more likely to identify with the profession and less with their employer.  Individuals who come from the semiprofessional perspective are less comfortable with being subject to regulation from their regulatory body; individuals who come from the professional perspective are more likely to be comfortable with being subject to regulation from their regulatory body.

This shift from occupation to semiprofession to profession is what is referred to as the ‘professionalization’ of HR.  The concept of professionalization not only explains a lot of what is going on in HR at the institutional and individual practitioner level, it can also serve to provide a roadmap for the profession—we will leave a discussion of this roadmap for some other time.

Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, HRPA and Special Regulatory Advisor, CCHRA.

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