Learning to live with a professional regulatory body

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

There is one aspect which separates true professions from other occupations—professions are governed and regulated by a professional regulatory body whereas this is not the case for other occupations. The passage of the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013 (the Act), gave the Human Resources profession a professional regulatory body, it’s as simple as that…or is it?

Actually, the Human Resources profession in Ontario has had a professional regulatory body since 1990 with the passage of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, 1990 (the HRPAO Act). So why did it not feel like the Human Resources profession was regulated for all these years?

It can be seen that the coming into force of an Act is immediate. The development and establishment of enabling by-laws and policies takes more time. Putting in place the operational infrastructure to implement takes more time still. But what takes the most time of all is the shift in the mindsets—there is the mindset of the association itself, the mindset of the members and the mindset of the public.

The idea here is that although the passage of acts creates clear milestones along the way, becoming a regulated profession is a gradual process that takes time. For example, all the provisions in the Registered Human Resources Professionals Act, 2013 came into force upon Royal Assent on November 6, 2013; and yet, it will take years for the Association to make real the true professional regulatory body that is enabled by the Act, and it will take years for Human Resources professionals to fully realize what it really means to have a true professional regulatory body.

It is not simply a matter of implementation. Putting in place the infrastructure to implement the various regulatory processes described in the Act is one thing; developing the mindset and maturity to fully leverage these regulatory processes is another. It is a whole transformation. Here is an example: the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario Act, 1990, gave the Association the statutory authority to discipline its members, and yet no one can remember a case going to discipline between 1990, when the HRPAO Act came into force, and 2013 when it was repealed.  Why was that?

There are many reasons.

As associations acquire regulatory powers, at first they are reticent to use these powers. The association has not yet developed the mindset of a professional regulatory body which would meter out discipline. The complaints and discipline processes and procedures do not exist or are untested—exactly what is disciplinable is not well defined. The skills in applying the processes and procedures have not yet been developed. The members are not used to thinking of their association as a professional regulatory body that would meter out discipline. The public, for its part, is not aware that the profession is answerable to a bona fide professional regulatory body. They does not think of the association as a professional regulatory body, and therefore did not think of filing a complaint with the association when a member falls short of the standards of the profession, if they even know what the standards of conduct are that apply to that profession.

Let’s be clear here that there is much more to professional regulation than discipline. But interestingly, the handling of complaints and discipline seems to be a good indicator of the maturity of a profession and its professional regulatory body.

Not so long ago, in response to a blog on professional regulation, a member replied: “The Association should grant the designation but leave it at that. The Association has no business in telling me how to do my job.”  Well, that is just not the case. Professional regulatory bodies are required, by law, to govern and regulate the practice of the profession. Not to do so would be a dereliction of duty under the Act. This means not only establishing requirements such as professional liability insurance requirements and development of practice standards but also the putting into place of various mechanisms to ensure compliance.

The dynamics are similar to professional discipline. The Association doesn’t quite know how to set standards of practice, and the members are not quite used to a professional regulatory body that will tell them what to do.

In the example above, it is quite clear that the member had not quite got his or her head around the fact that his or her professional regulatory body can tell him or her how to do his or her job (of course, the practice standards would have been established in order to minimize or mitigate an identified risk to the public or other users of the professional service). Again, this is an indicator of maturity as a regulated profession.

These issues are not specific to HRPA. All newly regulated professions seem to need to work through similar issues. In Ontario, five new professional regulatory bodies were recently created—the College of Naturopaths of Ontario, the College of Kinesiologists of Ontario, the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, the College of Homeopaths of Ontario, and the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario. Most of the professionals in these professions had worked for years in an unregulated environment, and now have had to adjust to having a professional regulatory body.

For the Human Resources profession, learning to live with a professional regulatory body is one facet of a professionalization process. Indeed, the Human Resources profession seems to be moving from being a semi-profession to being a true profession. The term ‘semi-profession’ is used to refer to occupations which have some of the features of a profession, but are not considered to be quite ‘true’ professions. One difference between semi-professions and true professions, is the tendency for individuals in semi-professional occupations to identify more with their employer and less with the profession; for members of true professions it is the other way around, individuals in professional occupations tend to identify more with their profession and less with their employer.

For professionals, maintaining good relations with their professional regulatory body is very important indeed. Professionals are attentive to the professional guidance issued by their professional regulatory body, and they are responsive to the requests of their professional regulatory body. This doesn’t mean that professionals look forward to being provided with professional guidance or being required to demonstrate compliance with various practice standards. Nonetheless, there are high levels of compliance because professionals respect their professional regulatory body, it is also that such obligations are seen as just part of what it means to be a professional.

Learning to live with a professional regulatory body may require a cultural transformation for the Human Resources profession. There is more at stake this time around, however. With a private act, it was possible to fly below the radar, this may not be possible with a public act. As noted above, the passage of the Act may well have been the easy part. The cultural transformation required to make the Act work may well be a more difficult challenge. This cultural transformation is likely to start with new entrants to the profession. For these new entrants to the profession, this new way of relating to their professional regulatory body will not require retraining as this new way of relating to their professional regulatory body is the only way that they will have known.

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