Is HR a Profession?

by Michael Haberman on April 11, 2012 · 1 comment


Is a degree necessary to be an HR "professional'?

Sitting around a lunch table the other day I got into a discussion with friends where the question was asked “Is HR a profession?” Part of the response to that question depends on how you define profession. The dictionary I referenced defined it this way:

  1. a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science: the profession of teaching.
  2. any vocation or business.
  3. the body of persons engaged in an occupation or calling: to be respected by the medical profession.

HR is certainly an occupation. But it was pointed out that HR is not the same type of “profession” (learned profession?) as is a law, medicine, architecture, engineering, or public accounting. What is the big difference between those professions and HR? Those require someone to have a degree in the profession. Last I checked no degree is required in HR. Degrees are available and many have them, me included, but my degree was not required for me to hold any particular job. I could not have been an attorney without a degree, or a doctor or an engineer, but anyone can be an HR manager. And that is part of the problem HR has in its struggle to gain respect.

We all have read the stories of how HR is not respected by upper management. You can probably provide personal examples. Now that is not to say that HR lacks respect in every organization. But the respect HR gets in an organization is not dependent on the field of HR but rather it is dependent on the particular practioner of HR. I can think of many HR “professionals” who are highly respected in their organizations because of who they are, the effort they put in, the learning they demonstrate and the ability they show. Plaudits to them and for what they do for HR in general. But there are many more who have not received that recognition and they won’t because they are “just in HR.”

What is it going to take for HR to become a profession? First the continued good work of many who labor at a “professional” level. Continued certification efforts will help. But certification is not sufficient. Many a CEO has no idea of what a PHR or SPHR is nor cares. It is not until CEOs require their HR “professionals” to be degreed that it will begin to be viewed as a profession. And that will not occur until CEOs get the word that “professional” HR is needed. But for that to occur HR must show they get business results through people. CEOs are not interested in activities.

As long as we have an occupation where people can “fall into” the occupation by being in the right place at the right time (or wrong time) this will not be a profession in the sense meant by law, medicine, teaching, etc. You don’t “fall into” being a doctor. Does this mean that a degree automatically makes you a professional? Nope. There are lots of lousy lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. just as there are a lot of lousy HR people. But there are different hurdles to entry between the former and the latter.

Some days I despair about this, other days I am encouraged. My colleagues involved with HRevolution have had many a discussion on this topic, but I wanted to include you in this discussion. So I ask these questions:

  1. What is your view?
  2. Do you consider yourself a professional, and if yes, why?
  3. What have your done in your organization to become professional
  4. When you were hired did you have to be degreed in HR? or business? Is that important?

Help me by giving me your feedback.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Travis Sinquefield April 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Great post, Mike! I would love for HR to be a fully recognized profession. I believe that we are getting there by having valid, well-known (or starting to get known) certifications and also an established competency model. My organization is small and we are just now developing an HR function, but I was put in the position because of my MBA in HRM. If I had many years of experience in exchange for the degree, I’d probably be the guy picked as well. In my mind, I believe that having an HR education is important to succeed, but as I am getting more into it you really don’t learn the profession until you actually work in it. Business school only teaches you so much – you really get an understanding by actually doing the job.

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