What’s in a name?

By Claude Balthazard, Ph.D., C.Psych., CHRL
Vice-President, Regulatory Affairs and Registrar at HRPA

We call ourselves Human Resources Professionals[1], and our profession Human Resources Management or simply Human Resources. Many do not realize, however, how unusual it is for a profession to use the word “professional” in its title, and some of the baggage that comes from having done that.

Among all the registered professions, it is rare to find the word professional in the name of the profession itself. There are the Professional Engineers, the Professional Foresters, and the Professional Geoscientists, and more recently the unification of the accounting professions has given us Chartered Professional Accountants. Interestingly, in all of these professional titles, professional appears as an adjective—only with the Registered Human Resources Professionals does the word professional appear as a noun. For all other professions, the name of the profession is very often a single word ending in –ist, –er, –ian, –or, –e, –eer, –eon, –ect, or –al (see Table 1 below). When more than one word is used, it is usually for professions technologists and technicians—for example, Medical Laboratory Technologist, Engineering Technologist, Engineering Technician, Veterinary Technician, etc. Here the construction of the name is similar to Human Resources Professionals, except that Human Resources has chosen professional and not technologist or technician. Technologists and technicians are usually professions whose work supports another profession—some would call these paraprofessions or semiprofessions. In choosing professional rather than technologist or technician, Human Resources professionals aimed high. The other cases where more than one word is used in the name of a profession are the therapists—for example, Occupational Therapists, Respiratory Therapists, etc. These professions could have used the word professional but opted for the more descriptive and narrower therapist. Then there are the workers, such as Social Workers and Social Service Workers. These are similar to single word derivations by adding –er to the word that refers to the work done—it just happens that the work done was in two or three words. Then there are some exceptions such as Dental Hygienist, Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, Dental Surgeon, and Early Childhood Educator (although in the case of Dental Surgeons everyone else calls them Dentists).

Table 1:  Term used to refer to practitioners among regulated professions in Ontario
-ist Professional Geoscientist, Denturist, Dental Technologist, Kinesiologist, Pharmacist, Psychologist, Chiropodist, Optometrist, Physiotherapist, Occupational Therapist, Audiologist, Speech and Language Pathologist, Respiratory Therapist, Massage Therapist, Medical Radiation Technologist, Dental Hygienist, Medical Laboratory Technologist, Engineering Technologist, Acupuncturist
-er Lawyer, Social Worker, Social Service Worker, Professional Forester, Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner, Teacher
-ian Physician, Optician, Dietician, Veterinarian, Engineering Technicians
-or Professional Land Surveyor, Chiropractor, Early Childhood Educator
-e Registered Practical Nurse, Registered Nurse. Midwife
-eer Professional Engineers
-ect Architect
-on Surgeon
-al Paralegal

It is interesting to note how the word professional has a somewhat different meaning or impact whether it is used as an adjective or a noun. Consider, for example, a person who introduces themselves as a professional engineer or an engineering professional. Here, we are likely to assume that the engineering professional is not an engineer but someone in a related occupation because if he or she were a professional engineer he or she would have said so.

Some baggage

Using the word professional as a noun in the name used for practitioners does carry some baggage however. In the desire to appropriate some of the status and respectability of professions, many occupations began using the word professional. Any quick search of the web will bring up a whole slew of professionals (see Table 2 below).

Table 2: A random list of occupations with the word ‘professional’ in their name
Advertising Professional

Beauty Professional

Career Professional

Cleaning Professionals

Communications Professional

Electrolux Professional

Energy Procurement Professional

Financial Professional

Home Inspection Professionals

Home Installation Professionals

Hospitality Professional

Hospitality Sales Professional

HVAC Professional

Information Technology Professional

Insurance Professional

Maintenance & Reliability Professionals

Maintenance Management Professional

Marketing Professional

Purchasing Professional

Sales Professional

Speaking Professionals

Tax Professional

Training Professional

Transportation Professional

Of course, as the word professional got increasingly used and abused, both as adjective and noun, its meaning has become diluted. Indeed, any claim to professionalism is viewed with more than a fair degree of cynicism.

“Any occupation that uses ‘professional’ in its name, surely isn’t”

It is not as if the general public cannot tell the difference—now the qualifier ‘true’ or ‘real’ will be used to distinguish between true professions and all those other occupations that may use professional in their name. Of course, there are debates as to what is or is not a true profession, but it seems safe to say that of the occupations that have ‘professional’ in their name, few if any would be considered true professions—fine people, doing good work, but not professionals in the true meaning of the word .

The crux of the point is this: the use of the word “professional” as a noun to refer to practitioners is unheard of within the ranks of the regulated professions (Human Resources Professionals are breaking new ground here) but is quite prevalent among those occupations that are not true professions but would like to appropriate some of the status and respectability of professions.

What happened here?

This is not to say that HR has fully arrived as a profession, but it has, at least in some quarters, been singularly successful in moving forward with its professionalization agenda. Although at one time, it may well have fitted in with those occupations striving to be recognized as professions, it has made the jump to the big list. Although the name used for practitioners of the profession is more in line with those occupations striving to be recognized as professions, it really does belong on the list of true professions.

What this means is that the Human Resources profession is probably going to have to work a bit harder to be seen as a true profession because its name sounds like it would belong to the other list. For some time, the Human Resources profession may have to articulate a bit more clearly why it belongs on the list of true professions

Just to be clear, the argument here is not that the name of the profession will hold the profession back. It acts as a reminder of the progress that the Human Resources profession has made over time.

[1] In some cases, there is a difference between the professional title and the common name of the profession. For instance, accountant is not a protected professional title, anyone can call himself or herself an accountant, but only those authorized to do so can call themselves a Chartered Professional Accountant. Same with engineers, anyone can call himself or herself an engineer, but only those authorized to do so can call themselves a Professional Engineer. In 1989, HRPAO began granting the Human Resources Professional (HRP) only to find a year later, with the passage of the “Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, 1990”, that this could not be used as the professional title because it was too generic—thus the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) was born. All those who had been granted the HRP designation in 1989 were reissued new CHRP certificates.

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