HR students and professionalism: Some unanswered questions

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

Quite recently, I was asked to make a presentation on the topic of the professionalization of HR and HR professionals to a 4th year undergraduate class enrolled in a Strategic Human Resources Planning course. There were about 40 students in the class. I decided to kick off my presentation by asking the following question:

“In your program of study so far, excluding today’s session, how much time have you spent on the topic of professionalism?”

For most part, the students seemed perplexed by the question. One student answered “well nothing really.” Finally, another student responded with the following: “well a fair bit actually—our career counselors conducted sessions with us to give us advice on what to wear at job interviews.” For an occupation that wants to be seen as a true profession, this short exchange raises a lot of questions. The purpose of this short article is not to answer these questions but to more to map out some of the key questions that need to be addressed.

First, the student’s answer was not surprising. Indeed, it is along the lines of the 2012 Professionalism in the Workplace Study conducted by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. The purpose and context of this research was to assess the level of professionalism found in new hires who have recently graduated from college. Here professionalism referred to dimensions such as etiquette, being courteous, showing others respect, being punctual, using one’s time efficiently, confidence, having a work ethic, being ethical and being knowledgeable. This use of the term professionalism is about affecting the mannerisms of persons in professional positions. Although one can see how this usage came about, it really is a distant relative to meaning ascribed to the term in established professions. In established professions, the term professionalism is meant to mean much more than surface mannerisms of being a professional; it is substance of being a professional.

The interesting aspect is that the student did not seem to be aware of the vast difference between these two uses of the word professionalism. How prevalent is this confusion among students, or among HR professionals for that matter? At the very least, one could conclude that one should not take for granted that students in HR have a clear idea of what professionalism means. Now this is not a knock on this student or any group of students—how can we expect them to have a nuanced understanding of professionalism when the topic has never come up in their course of study?

But these were 4th year students in HR, soon to graduate and join the ranks of HR professionals—should this lack of understanding of what professionalism means disturb us? What does it say about our claim to be a true profession?

Let’s look forward and ask the following question: “What should students who are enrolled in HR programs know about professionalism?”

First, it should be noted that professionalism is about values, attitudes, and behaviours—professionalism is more about what one does than what one knows. Many professionals who demonstrate high levels of professionalism, would not necessarily have much knowledge of professionalism. Traditionally, professionalism was something that was thought to be inculcated through exposure to role models—essentially a process of socialization. BusinessDictionary.com defines socialization as follows: “the 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.”

Some of the more recent thinking about inculcating professionalism has focused on the need for both knowing about professionalism and learning how to put this abstract construct into practice. Although the process of socialization into a profession is an on-going one, it is especially important in the formative stages of professionals’ careers.

This leads to another set of questions. What should be the role of post-secondary institutions with respect to teaching and development of professionalism in individuals who are in training to become HR professionals?

There are likely different points-of-view on this question. One perspective is that teaching professionalism is the responsibility of the professional association or perhaps the professional regulatory body but not the responsibility of post-secondary academic institutions. Many business schools offer a course on business ethics. These courses focus on ‘knowing about’ rather than the ‘living’ of professionalism. There is also the question as to the relation between business ethics and professionalism. Depending on the specific course and the specific instructor, there could be very little coverage of professionalism is a business ethics course. In other words, teaching professionalism as an academic topic may not lead to greater levels of professionalism among graduates.

Of course, these are not questions that can be easily answered nor are they meant to be. There are a number of things that need to happen before we can seriously tackle these questions. Firstly, the HR profession needs to arrive at a definition of professionalism that works for the profession. Then we need to work out a model as to how the profession will instill professionalism in aspiring HR professionals. Likely this will include roles for various institutional players including post-secondary educational institutions, the professional association, the professional regulatory body and employers. Leaving our new entrants to the profession to figure it out on their own is not the best way to increase the level of professionalism among HR professionals.

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