Simply put, the professionalization agenda is one that aims to see the HR profession recognized as a true profession and HR professionals recognized as true professionals. There are different facets to professionalization, however. One facet refers to things that must happen at the institutional level; another facet refers to things that must happen at the individual level. Institutional changes refer to the establishment and strengthening of professional regulatory bodies, the statutory recognition of the profession, and the establishment of identifiable HR programs is post-secondary educational institutions. Changes at the individual level refer to an evolution in the behaviour, values, and attitudes of HR professionals. There is still a lot of work to be done at the institutional level; but these aspects are reasonably obvious. The evolution in the behaviour, values, and attitudes of HR professionals is more difficult to capture, however, and has been subject of less attention. Nonetheless, the professionalization of HR has as much to do about how we think and conduct ourselves as anything else.
The process by means of which professionals become professionals is likely complicated but socialization arguably plays a big part. BusinessDictionary.com defines socialization as follows: “process by which individuals acquire the knowledge, language, social skills, and value to conform to the norms and roles required for integration into a group or community. It is a combination of self-imposed (because the individual wants to conform) and externally-imposed rules, and the expectations of the others.” The socialization of HR professionals is a topic that has not received much attention in the past but it is an issue that we need to come to grips with if we are to push forward with the professionalization agenda.
Although the process of socialization into a profession is an on-going one, it is especially important in the formative stages of professionals’ careers. To the extent that HR exists as a group or community, socialization does occur; but this process of socialization has never been intentional or focused. It is also not clear that the knowledge, language, social skills, and values that are being socialized into new entrants to the profession are those that are needed to move forward with the professionalization of HR. Other professions have been more focused and deliberate in socializing their new professionals into their professions.
Indeed, in many other professions there are internships, articling, supervised practice stages, and professional education programs. These are not just ‘experience’ requirements, and they are not so much about the acquisition of knowledge and skills: these are systematic and deliberate programs designed to inculcate professional values, ethics and attitudes. For many professions, the early career phase is considered of crucial importance and the inculcation of the attitudes and values of professionalism is the most important aspect of this phase.
By way of contrast, this phase in the development of HR professionals does not appear to be ‘engineered’ as well. There appears to be very little discussion of what it means to be a professional in the formative stages of HR professionals’ careers. (In fact, there is very little discussion of what it means to be a professional in HR, but we will leave this topic for another day.) We all recognize that there is a gap between academic learning and practice as a professional, but whereas other professions have seized upon this as an opportunity to socialize new entrants into the profession, the HR profession has yet to get deliberate and focused about using this gap between academic learning and practice as a professional as an opportunity to inculcate the attitudes and values of professionalism.
The socialization of new entrants into the profession is something we need to do better. We need to think about it more, and be more focused and deliberate in carrying this out. There are a number of different models out there that may be worth considering. The professional education programs which are the cornerstone of the accounting certification programs are interesting models. In order to do this, however, we need to begin a dialogue on the professional values, ethics and attitudes of the HR profession. This could well be seen as the next stage or phase in the professionalization of HR.
Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych. is Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs, HRPA and Special Regulatory Advisor, CCHRA.