In 2008 the Society for Human Resource Management was in the midst of a makeover. Its well-respected president and CEO was retiring after six years, and the organization was attempting to shed its administrative image and rebrand itself as a global HR thought leader. At that time, Workforce took an in-depth look at the initial stage of the transformation in an article titled "SHRM at a Crossroads."
During the past half-decade, SHRM emerged from the depths of the nation's worst recession since the Depression with a growing membership, flush coffers, an increased focus on pushing its political agenda and a heightened global presence.
And according to current SHRM President and CEO Hank Jackson, the organization has done so by remaining steadfast to its mission. "Our society has grown to become the largest human resources organization in the world because it has never lost its focus on the original principles: Serve the members. Give them what they need to assist employers and employees alike. Advance the profession by protecting and promoting its professionalism," he wrote in the April issue of HR Magazine, the association's publication. A spokeswoman said that Jackson was not available to comment for this article.
While most SHRM members are content with the direction that the association is heading, the chorus of critics who say that SHRM has lost its way seems to be getting louder.
In a recent Workforce survey on HR associations, a number of participants said that SHRM is focusing too much on profits and increasing membership and not enough on the needs of its existing members. Others still criticize past actions by SHRM's board of directors, such as its 2005 decision to pay board members and allow them to travel business class. Others say that SHRM has shifted its focus from helping employers and employees to representing the interests of employers only. And others took SHRM to task for not doing a better job in elevating the status of the profession.
Just over half of the respondents—51 percent—indicated that they are satisfied with the direction that SHRM is leading the HR profession, while 40 percent said they are unsure and 9 percent indicated dissatisfaction. Of SHRM members, two-thirds were satisfied.
Comments like these were typical: "They seem more focused on increasing membership than on improving the profession. The meetings of local chapters seem to be focused on the interests of entry-level HR people and networking rather than on real professional development through in-depth discussion of the issues" and "SHRM has become too big and too commercial."
Still others praised many of SHRM's efforts, including education, lobbying and some of the things critics have pointed out, like representing the needs of small employers and entry-level professionals. "Need to make sure that we remain focused on what's fair for the employer and employee, omitting any political-party agendas," one respondent writes. "So far, I believe SHRM has been able to do that. Also, the recognition and respect HR professionals now receive, I believe, has been partially achieved by SHRM's efforts."
The majority of respondents—67 percent—said they are satisfied with the organization overall, and many praised SHRM's efforts in education, lobbying and meeting the needs of small employers and entry-level professionals.
Criticism of an organization as large as SHRM—it has 265,000 members worldwide—is probably inevitable. But many SHRM critics are respected longtime members who have been deeply involved in its activities, like Barbara Hobbs, an HR director in Tallahassee, Florida. She has been an active SHRM member for 30 years and is a past president of SHRM's Jacksonville, Florida, chapter. She says that she is disappointed with some of the association's actions.
"They've forgotten about the small employer and are geared more toward the global economy," Hobbs says. "And I don't think they should be spending the kind of money that they do in travel for board members. Somehow SHRM has gone astray. As my grandmother used to say, 'They've become too big for their britches.' "
Some argue that the entire HR profession is at a crossroads as it struggles to establish itself as a strategic business partner and shed its image as a bureaucratic policy pusher. John Boudreau, research director at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, says that SHRM reflects that transformation.
"There's been lots of questioning of what the profession needs to be," he says. "Every professional HR association has done work on that. There has been an upwelling of this discussion in the past two to three years. Our evidence suggests that there's been progress, but whether or not it's been quick enough for the aspirations of the profession and to meet the needs of its constituents is an open question."
The role that HR plays has come under greater scrutiny in part because the recession and its impact on the workforce have led corporate leaders to "look at what this profession can deliver" in terms of strategic thinking and leadership, Boudreau says.
Steve Miranda, who was SHRM's chief human resources officer from 2005 to 2011, says that during his tenure the association began rebranding itself to reflect changes in the business landscape. Its programs were becoming more sophisticated and more global in perspective, he says.
"There were incredible pressures being placed on HR professionals at the time," says Miranda, who is now managing director at the Cornell University Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. "Our courses and conference programming had to rise to the next level. We had to up our game. HR was split into two camps: the administrative and the business strategy. HR was undergoing a change, and SHRM's offerings had to reflect that."
According to Bob Carr, SHRM's senior vice president of membership, marketing and external affairs, SHRM has continued to evolve.
This year the association launched five strategic initiatives designed to increase membership, particularly among senior-level executives, and promote professionalism through professional standards and competencies, Carr says.
Last fall SHRM launched the CHRO Initiative, which aims to attract more senior-level members by establishing networking groups, or "hubs," in cities around the world. Chief human resource officer hubs are underway in 15 cities, including Atlanta and New York in the United States, and Manila in the Philippines, according to a SHRM overview of the project. SHRM also plans to beef up membership in California, which has a large number of SHRM chapters and affiliates and a unique set of employment laws, Carr says.
Other initiatives include promoting SHRM's nine HR competencies, or professional standards, which include relationship management, ethics and leadership, among others. Last year SHRM introduced performance management standards to give employers a uniform way to assess and evaluate employee job performance. The standard was approved last year by the American National Standards Institute, a nonprofit organization that oversees the development of professional standards for a variety of companies and institutions.
Attracting more senior-level professionals, however, has been an elusive goal for SHRM.
"The CHRO issue is a conversation that they've had since day one and will continue to have ongoing," says China Gorman, who was SHRM's chief operating officer from 2007 to 2010. "The strategies to engage more HR leaders in the organization will ebb and flow. Having CHRO support is important because many of their employees are members. Is SHRM ever going to be successful at programming for the Fortune 500 CHROs? I don't know. But as long as SHRM continues to provide the best services for those entry- and midlevel and senior professionals, it will have the support of CHROs."
John Haggerty, a senior lecturer at the Cornell's ILR School, says that SHRM serves "a very important purpose" in exposing entry- and midlevel professionals and those at small companies to industry leaders and knowledge.
"I've always thought of SHRM as fulfilling a need in the industry to provide those without solid academic credentials the opportunity to learn a trade," Haggerty says. "A lot of SHRM's membership is made up of all sorts of professionals who are not Fortune 50 HR people, and the whole thing about a seat at the table is being played out more often in large companies. That's where the more strategic HR work gets created. SHRM exposes people in smaller organizations to those best practices."
While there is little doubt that SHRM is a powerful force in the HR industry, its efforts to be a thought leader have not always been successful.
Last year its proposal to standardize a set of HR metrics, such as employee satisfaction and money spent on training, was torpedoed by an association of CHROs. The HR Policy Association, or HRPA, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization representing 335 of the nation's largest corporations, strongly opposed the measure, which called for the data to be shared with the public. The HRPA argued that it would overburden employers and expose proprietary information to competitors. SHRM withdrew the proposal late last year.
Some say that SHRM's effort to be all things to all people has compromised its cache. Anyone who coughs up its $180 annual membership fee can join, whereas organizations like HRPA and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the United Kingdom are much more selective. HRPA's annual CHRO Summit is by invitation only, and the CIPD only admits those who pass rigorous testing.
"If you want respect as a profession, you need to limit the numbers of the people you let in," says Bridie Fanning, a Milwaukee-based consultant who is a member of both SHRM and the CIPD. "Look at law and medicine. You have kids coming out of law school, and there are no jobs. It's great for the law schools but not for the profession. And then you look at the medical profession, and we don't have enough doctors. A business strategy is that you say yes to some customers and no to others. SHRM doesn't know who it's saying yes or no to."
Carr concedes that SHRM's membership strategy is to be inclusive, not exclusive, but he sees that as a strength.
"The strategy behind it was that we didn't want to disenfranchise people," he says. "When we were founded, HR was a growing field, and we wanted to make sure we were as inclusive as possible. We wanted access for everyone. Then you reach a point where you want to be seen as the best in your profession, and that's where certification comes in."
Carr points out that only those who pass the HR Certification Institute exam can become a credentialed HR professional. The institute offers three main credentials—the Professional in Human Resources, Senior Professional in Human Resources and Global Professional in Human Resources. SHRM sells test preparation kits, but HRCI administers the exams.
While 127,439 practitioners have an HRCI certificate, according to the institute, just how much weight those certifications carry is unclear. In the U.S. some companies, like Netflix Inc., don't ask for the credentials when hiring, while in the United Kingdom, "You rarely see an HR job that doesn't require CIPD certification," says Fanning, who wrote her master's thesis on HR professionalization in the U.K. and the U.S.
CIPD certification is not required by all U.K. employers, but "they do have a high degree of currency in the employment market, with many employers considering the credentials to be desirable," says Katy Askew, a CIPD spokeswoman. She says that a CIPD chartered membership, which is awarded to practitioners who pass a rigorous exam and have three to five years of HR experience, is equivalent to a master's degree in the United States.
While the CIPD is the only HR association in the U.K., there are several in the U.S. in addition to SHRM and the HRPA. Among them are International Association for Human Resource Information Management, which has 1,700 members and National Human Resources Association, which has 1,200 active members.
And there are divisions within SHRM itself.
In 2010, a group of former SHRM leaders who were concerned about decisions made by the association's board of directors formed a splinter group called the SHRM Members for Transparency. It is a small but powerful group made up of past presidents, former board members and HR leaders like Gerry Crispin, Jac Fitz-enz, Mike Losey and others.
Among their grievances was the board's 2005 decision to pay its members and allow reimbursement for business-class travel for board members. Other key issues included the large number of board members without HR credentials and the association's inability to hire a president and CEO in a timely fashion after the departure in 2010 of Lon O'Neil, who took over after Sue Meisinger retired in 2008. The job went unfilled for nearly a year before SHRM hired Jackson as then-interim president and CEO. His lack of HR credentials was also a point of contention for the transparency group.
The group even ran its own candidate in the fall 2012 board elections, but she lost.
Many SHRM members dismiss the criticism as sour grapes.
"I know that there are people out there who like to take potshots out there, but I think very highly of the organization," says Dave Ryan, HR director for Mel-o-cream Donuts International Inc. in Springfield, Illinois, and a SHRM member since 2001. "Do they make missteps? Of course they do. But they've done a lot of good things for this profession. Folks were jacked up last year at the leadership conference about board members traveling to India or South America first class, but that just seemed like sour grapes to me."
SHRM officials, including Carr, are undeterred by the criticism. "Aren't those the sort of the inherent tensions in a democracy?" he says. "We are open and inclusive so we will have people with a wide range of views. What we should be or shouldn't be, what we should do and shouldn't do who we should be, all that resides with our board of directors."
As we noted in our survey, about two-thirds of SHRM's members are satisfied with how it's leading the profession. Eventually, however, leaders will have to answer the questions of who, or what, SHRM should be if they want to move beyond the crossroads.
"The issue of SHRM's relevancy is not much of an issue if its membership is growing," says Miranda, SHRM's former CHRO. "The real task for SHRM is figuring out what it doesn't want to be. No organization can be good at everything."