Let’s take it as a given that there is value for HR professionals to be perceived as true professionals. Professionalism is sometimes considered in terms of the behaviour of individual members of a profession. However, there is a collective dimension to professionalism which is quite important.
Even with no experience with a particular member of an occupational group, we often have are expectations as to the professionalism of that individual based on the occupational group to which they belong. Sometimes we notice the professionalism of an individual, or lack thereof, precisely because of the expectations we have of the occupational group they belong to. When a member of an established profession behaves unprofessionally, we notice. Similarly, when a member of an occupational group which does not have a reputation for professionalism does behave in a professional manner, we also notice.
Just how much the behaviour of one individual impacts our impression of the members of an occupational group? Clearly, the exceptional individual does not change our perceptions of the occupational group precisely because we have identified the behaviour as exceptional. “The exception confirms the rule.” On the other hand, repeated experiences with members of a particular occupational group will begin to cement a particular impression that will be attributed to the occupational group as a whole.
Consider Mike Holmes, the contractor on television who comes is to fix the messes and botched jobs left behind by other contractors (Holmes on Homes, Holmes Inspection). Although the television show might have done good things for Mike Holmes, it is not clear that it has done much good for the reputation of contractors as a whole. Imagine a medical reality TV show where the premise would be a surgeon fixing the botched operations of previous surgeons.
It is not clear how much an individual can transcend the reputation of their occupational group. The reputation of HR as an occupational group follows each member of the occupational group and acts as a default of sorts. Some individuals may try to distance themselves from their occupational groups, but it is not clear how successful that strategy is.
There is also more to perceptions of professionalism than behaviour. For instance, no matter how professionally a vintage guitar appraiser behaves, it is unlikely that vintage guitar appraising would be considered a profession. There are various facets to being considered a true profession. One has to do with the organization of the profession and its various institutions, governmental recognition of the profession, the existence of professional schools are hallmarks which define true professions.
What seems to be important is consistency. When experience with members of a particular occupational group is consistent, we are more likely to attribute the characteristic to the occupational group; when experience with members of a particular occupational group is inconsistent, we are more likely to attribute the characteristic to the individual.
So how is this important to HR professionals? First we need to recognize that increasing the perception of professionalism of HR professionals is a collective challenge. Whether we like it or not, HR is an identifiable occupational group. The HR profession needs to present a consistent image of professionalism. That some HR professionals present in a professional manner and that some do not is not that helpful.
Interestingly, professionalism is one of those characteristics that everyone claims to have. And yet, when HR professionals are asked about the professionalism of other members of the profession, they will often have negative things to say, at least about some individuals. (One always wonders if individuals who are said to be unprofessional are aware of their lack of professionalism, or is professionalism one of those characteristics for which self-perceptions are always in danger of being distorted?)
The main point here is that the perception of the HR profession and its members is important to all HR professionals. Even those HR professionals who do not belong to any professional HR association cannot truly distance themselves from such generalized perceptions. The collective dimension of perceptions of professionalism does make it more difficult to manage or change these perceptions because it requires the concerted efforts of a broad and diverse group some members of which might not have bought into the professionalization agenda.
Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, HRPA and Special Regulatory Advisor, CCHRA.