Would licensure be a good idea for HR?

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

In an HR Executive Online blog, dated September 2014, Sue Meisinger argues that licensure is not a good idea for Human Resources.  Meisinger’s blog picked up on an idea that always seems to be in the background in any discussion of where the HR profession may be going.  Meisinger gave three reasons why licensure would be a bad idea for HR:

  1. Human Resources already deals with mountains of regulatory requirements,
  2. There is no activity that only a “licensed HR professional” should do, and
  3. The legislative processes across the 50 states could result in a hodgepodge of regulatory requirements that limit or change what HR professionals can now do.

Lets look at each in turn.

We need to start with the purpose of licensure. The purpose of licensure is to protect the public by not only governing and regulating the practice of a profession but making participation in this regulatory regime compulsory.

The first reason is not a valid reason not to regulate or license a profession. If it is in the public interest to regulate or license a profession, the government should do so.  That members of the profession don’t want to be encumbered by additional regulatory requirements is just too bad.  However, not all governments will see the need to protect the public in the same way; also, different jurisdictions will have different tools at their disposal to achieve similar regulatory objectives.  As Meisinger notes, Human Resources professionals already deal with mountains of regulatory requirements.  Indeed, the employment relationship and the workplace are already highly regulated in many jurisdictions.  There are two perspectives here.  One is that the existence of employment and workplace legislation obviates the need to regulate HR professionals.  The other is that the regulation of HR professionals makes sense in that it supports and reinforces employment and workplace legislation. Different jurisdictions will have a different take on this.

The second reason is an interesting one and one that has important ramifications for the HR profession. Of course, there is nothing that HR professionals can do that others cannot—that is what licensure is all about.  The question is whether there is anything that competent and ethical HR professionals can do that others should not be allowed to do because allowing others to do these things would introduce too much risk of harm to the public.

Depending on the regulatory regime and the profession, these prohibitions can be broad or quite narrow. In many professions, the prohibitions are in terms of specific activities that only licensed professionals can carry out—these are sometimes called restricted acts.  In many professions, the restricted acts may be much narrower than the scope of practice of the profession.  In fact, in some professions, only a minority of professionals will engage in restricted acts.  For instance, in many jurisdictions public accounting is licensed but other aspects of accounting are not.

The threats to the public can come from both lack of competence and/or unethical behaviour. Often, professional regulation is a matter of accountability.  Consider public accounting again.  The reason why public accountants are licensed is not to protect public companies from the actions of their auditors but to protect the public (e.g., shareholders, potential investors, governments) from misrepresentation of the financial state of affairs in a given public company.  The purpose of licensure in this case is to ensure that public accountants give independent and unbiased assessments of a company’s financial state of affairs.

If HR were ever to be licensed, it would be based on a rationale similar to public accounting—the idea would not be to protect employers from the decisions, actions, and policies of their HR professionals, but to protect employees from the actions of either HR professionals or the actions of employers as enacted by HR professionals.

From this perspective, the way licensure would come to HR is likely a compliance sign-off. Essentially, that an HR professional is required to put their license on the line and sign-off on the completeness and accuracy of some compliance document.  Public accountants are not what they are because they know more about accounting than the accountants who prepared the financial documents in the first place, public accountants are what they are because they have a fiduciary duty to the public.

The point here is that the activity that only a “licensed HR professional” should do is not the same as finding an activity that only HR professionals can do.  On the other hand, if there is nothing that well-trained HR professionals can do significantly better than untrained individuals, the profession is in trouble, deep trouble.  As a precursor to any thoughts of licensing, HR needs to work out what it is uniquely capable of delivering.

The issue with the last point—that licensure could result in a hodgepodge of regulatory requirements that limit or change what HR professionals can now do–is similar to the first in that licensure does not exist for the benefit of licensed professionals. Any state legislature must do what it deems necessary or justified to protect the public interest.  The fact that one or more other states do not see the same need to protect the public interest, or that they take a different approach to the protection of the public, is not a reason for a state legislature not to act.  Yes, it can create a mess for regulated professionals, but that is just the way it goes.  Meisinger mentioned how lawyers take both a multi-state and state-specific test as part of their bar exams.  Imagine if we argued that lawyers should not be regulated because the states don’t seem to be able to agree on a common set of laws.  Again, the reason why lawyers are regulated is to protect the public, the fact that it makes life somewhat more complicated for lawyers is an unfortunate side-effect.  Another way of looking at it is that if licensing were to come to HR, it would likely start in some states and spread to other states.

The main point here is that to think of licensing as ‘bad for HR’ is to assume that licensing exists to serve the interests of the profession. The key question is whether the licensing of HR is ‘good for the public.’  This could happen in two ways: (1) HR professionals work at evolving an argument for the licensure of HR, or (2) a large scale meltdown such that the state feels compelled to act.  For instance, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which came into force in July 2002 and introduced major changes to the regulation of corporate governance and financial practice was a reaction to regulatory failure.

Whether licensure happens for HR someday is not the most pressing issue, what is most important is that HR work out what it is uniquely capable of delivering. This is the necessary but not sufficient precursor to licensing, but, more importantly, it is core to any claim to being a profession.  Otherwise, HR just becomes just a collection of things that a loose community of individuals who think of themselves as Human Resources professionals do.  Then, having defined one or more activities that HR professionals are uniquely prepared to do, the next step would be to convince the state that having others carry out these activities brings about an unnecessary or unacceptable level of risk for the public.  However one feels about licensure for HR, it is clear that the profession is not at the point where this can seriously be considered.

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