Dissident Group Sounds Off on Perceived SHRM Show Snub

June 3, 2011

Every year since anyone can remember, past presidents and board chairs of the Society for Human Resource Management have eagerly awaited their invitations to attend the organization’s annual conference as guests of honor.

The letters usually arrive in early March, but this year they never came. Instead, past honorees who contacted SHRM learned through emails that the provision offering free registration had been repealed, which prompted accusations of retaliation against former association executives who have been critical of recent board decisions.

The former executives, who last year formed the SHRM Members for Transparency group, have compiled a detailed list of grievances against association leaders. That list includes the SHRM board’s 2005 decision to pay board members an annual honorarium of $10,000 to $20,000, depending on the position, and its vote last year to nearly double that amount and allow reimbursement for business-class travel for board members. The group is calling for an independent review of the board’s compensation plan.

In 2010, the board also raised SHRM’s annual membership fees from $160 to $180 per year and voted to tie future increases to the consumer price index—a move that angered many transparency group members.

Other concerns include the number of board members without credentials from the HR Certification Institute, or HRCI, which is affiliated with SHRM. Currently, only four of 11 members have this certification, which is viewed as the industry standard for evaluating human resources practitioners’ expertise.

As the largest HR professional association prepares for its 63rd annual conference, scheduled for June 26 to 29 in Las Vegas, frustration among the transparency group members is growing. The group’s website lists 46 official members—most are former board chairs and board members of SHRM, the SHRM Foundation and the HRCI.

It’s a fraction of SHRM’s 250,000-plus membership, but an impressive group that includes former SHRM CEO Mike Losey, who is acting as the transparency group’s president, and longtime SHRM member Jac Fitz-enz, CEO of Human Capital Source, in San Jose, California. Last month, Fitz-enz announced that he was quitting SHRM in protest.

SHRM board leaders “have acted arbitrarily in the last couple of years and made decisions that run counter to the behavior of a nonprofit board,” Fitz-enz says. “The board is not sharing information as it should. What they do they are doing behind closed doors.”

SHRM has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, both in membership and revenue, but it has also seen upheaval in its leadership and has come under increasing criticism from those who feel that SHRM has lost touch with its members’ needs.

Losey held the CEO title from 1990 to 2000. Since then four leaders have headed the organization, including interim president and CEO Henry Jackson. The organization is currently looking for a permanent leader.

The latest controversy over rescinding complimentary conference registration (the conference fee costs as much as $1,525 for members) to former SHRM leaders is a slap in the face, says Kathleen McComber, a former SHRM board chair who has also served on the SHRM Foundation and HRCI boards.

“Since I left the board in 1999, I’ve gotten a special letter every year telling me that I was invited as a distinguished guest. In March I hadn’t gotten it so I contacted SHRM to ask when I should expect it. I got an email saying it would be forthcoming. It never came.”

In an email to Workforce Management, Jackson provided this explanation for the board’s decision to end the tradition: “SHRM has come to believe that the complimentary registration practice is most beneficial to SHRM and its members when it helps to advance the current strategic agenda and activities.”

But the dissident group feels that SHRM is ignoring its concerns. “The board is playing hardball,” Losey says. “We’re not renegades. We’re following SHRM protocol.”

Losey says that last fall, the transparency group requested a meeting with the board at this month’s SHRM conference to discuss its concerns on the more recent decisions about compensation and travel, but has not received a reply. That request was made before complimentary registration was taken away.

But Jackson says SHRM leaders have met with various representatives of the group several times over the years. “We feel additional meetings would not be productive,” he said in a written response to Workforce Management. “The board of directors and senior management have had at least eight meetings with representatives of this group,” he added, where SHRM leaders explained their rationale for various decisions.

“We are satisfied that this important constituency understands how our decisions are securing the future of SHRM as our membership continues to grow,” Jackson says.

Losey counters that while some transparency group members have talked with SHRM leaders informally over the years, they have not responded to the group’s request for a formal meeting.

“I am outraged that Jackson would suggest that the board has talked to several of our group on these topics,” Losey says. “The last time any past chair spoke with leadership was in 2006, a year after the decision to compensate board members.

“I met with Jackson in Montreal at a conference we were both attending in the fall of 2010 and presented him with our concerns. He said that the board should see the material we had and that was the last I heard from him. The rest is a lie.”

But that’s not how Jackson sees it. “The fact is that since 2005 we have had numerous discussions, email exchanges and meetings with various members of the group, some of which occurred before they dubbed themselves as the ‘Transparency Group,’ ” Jackson says. “But their issues have been essentially the same.”

Jackson also shrugs off criticism over the number of board members without HRCI credentials, saying that requiring certification “would unduly limit SHRM’s ability to have a board composed of individuals with many different and important areas of expertise.”

The board, which is chaired by Jose Berrios, a talent and diversity consultant, includes professionals from finance and academia in addition to HR practitioners.

So which SHRM critics might you bump into at this month’s conference? Only five transparency group members plan to attend, Losey says. The rest either refuse to go as a form of protest or can’t afford to attend, he says.

“The most effective and efficient means of reconciliation is a face-to-face meeting, and until that happens you’ll never get a resolution,” says Kathryn McKee, a former SHRM board chair and member of the transparency group who does plan to attend this month’s conference.

McKee, who served as SHRM’s board chair in 1991, says that SHRM leadership is avoiding the issue.

“There’s this bunker mentality at work,” McKee says. “My take on leadership is that we confront conflict. In this case there’s been no response from leadership. It’s like they’re saying, ‘If we don’t answer them they’ll go away.’ When people aren’t heard, they rise up in frustration.”

Workforce Management, June 2011, p. 6-7 -- Subscribe Now!