SHRM, HR Reach for New Identity

June 28, 2007
The SHRM rebranding campaign announced last week is about more than just sprucing up a logo.

    It’s also a symbol of the way the HR profession is shedding its skin for a new one. SHRM officials and others in the field can hardly wait to get rid of the old administrative image. But the process of becoming more "strategic" is not entirely comfortable, and it’s not clear exactly what the profession’s new portrait will look like.

    In announcing the updated logo Sunday, SHRM president and CEO Sue Meisinger spoke of "rebranding the HR profession." She and SHRM board chair Janet Parker also used the term "enterprising HR," a phrase evoking business savvy. "We want people to know that our new look is a reflection of our profession’s increasing influence and responsibility," Meisinger said at the conference opening session.

    Forging a new identity for the profession, Meisinger argued, requires "a willingness to let go of the familiar."

    But not everyone is ready to let go of the familiar in HR—at least when that’s defined as devotion to humane employee relations.

    Parker herself hinted at this in her remarks Sunday. Perhaps the most moving moment of her speech was when she admitted to going "off script" and sharing things "from the heart." Parker talked about meeting "wonderful people" and hearing "wonderful stories" through her involvement with SHRM. "At the end of the day," she said, "we really are a very caring profession."

    Parker’s comment raises a central question: Can HR take that "seat at the table" without selling its soul? While acting as "business partners," HR leaders today frequently are asked to manage layoffs and cuts in benefits. "Enterprising HR" may echo the language of the C-suite, but it also smacks of business jargon that gets in the way of real communication. And "branding" may be a smart tool, but the term also conjures up crass commercialism and hype.

    Jackie Finnerty, COO at display maker Consort Display Group and an attendee at the conference, finds "branding" to be an annoying buzzword—akin to "shifting the paradigm," buzz-speak from a few years ago. On the other hand, she is a firm believer in making HR more businesslike. "You have to know what your company wants to do," she says.

    Other conference attendees welcomed the way SHRM officials are talking up the strategic nature of the profession. "I think a lot of us were already there," says Anita Edwards, HR manager with Pennsylvania-based engineering firm Selas Fluid Processing.

    HR professionals may need a business focus. But it makes business sense to hold on to the human piece of HR, suggests Joyce Wick, vice president of HR and administration for Indiana-based manufacturing firm Whitestone. She says her finance and operations counterparts can focus too narrowly on numbers. Remembering that "we have a heart" is vital to attracting talent given the growing importance of work/life balance in today’s workforce, Wick says. "Sometimes we all have to take a step back and look at the big picture," she says.

    The new picture of the profession remains fuzzy. That’s partly because corporate leaders harbor doubts about HR’s contribution. Still, it seems more possible than ever for HR professionals to "make" their own future, as Meisinger put it. Finnerty, for example, rose up in her small Michigan-based firm from an HR role to COO—a position that often leads to the chief executive post. What’s the secret to her success in straddling the business and HR arenas? Finnerty says she kept studying all the aspects of every position she had to fill.

    She boils it down to a quality most HR professionals have: raw curiosity.

    "I’m very nosy," Finnerty says.