On its annual member survey, the Human Resources Professionals Association asks the following question: “Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?” In 2013, 89.4% of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement—this represents as much agreement as one is likely to find on any question. Clearly, the professionalization of HR is an issue that is important to HR professionals—but what does it mean to professionalize HR? Where do we currently stand? And what are the next steps or challenges ahead?
Millerson (1964) defined professionalization as the process by which an occupation undergoes transformation to become a profession. More recently, Hodson and Sullivan (2012) stated that professionalization can be understood as the effort by an occupational group to raise its collective standing by taking on the characteristics of a profession. Borrowing from these definitions, we can define the professionalization of Human Resources as the process by which Human Resource professionals collectively strive to achieve the recognition and status that is accorded to the established professions by emulating or adopting the defining characteristics of the established professions.
The process of professionalization is complex—it also doesn’t help that there is a lack of consensus as to the meaning of the term ‘professionalization’, or the term ‘professionalism’ for that matter (Evans, 2008; Hargreaves and Goodson, 1996). Most of the literature on professionalization stems from the field of sociology. When sociologists think of ‘professionalism’ they usually focus on the institutional aspects such as the existence of a regulatory body, legal recognition as a profession, formal training programs, and the existence of codes of ethics. This is different than what most non-sociologists have in mind when they think of ‘professionalism’ (see for instance, the document entitled ‘Elements of professionalism’ authored by the Chief Justice of Ontario Advisory Committee on Professionalism, 2001). Here the focus is often on individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of the members of a professional group. But even the sociological literature has begun to give more attention to those individual aspects of professionalism (Evans, 2008). Indeed, the term ‘professionality,’ introduced by Hoyle (1974), has begun to be used to refer to the individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of members of a professional group.
Although the distinction between ‘professionalism’ and ‘professionality’ has certainly not made its way into common usage, the distinction between the institutional aspects and the individual aspects of professionalism and professionalization is useful and particularly germane to the profession of HR at this point in time.