Why SHRM Should Bail Out HR

January 19, 2009
You can’t turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper today without getting a rundown of the latest entity/industry/organization that is seeking a bailout from the federal government. The economy has been in the tank, and any bailout (of financial institutions, auto manufacturers, etc.) is designed with the firm belief that the organizations in question need a capital infusion to ensure they don’t go out of business, and that their survival is crucial to the U.S. economy.

    What about HR? Where’s our bailout?

    Before you dismiss this as grandstanding, consider similarities between the state of HR and the plight of the U.S. and its economy:

  1. Consumer confidence is reported to be at an all-time low.

  2. Approval ratings are in the toilet.

  3. People are scared and unsure of what to do.

  4. Experts are worried about our ability to compete in a global economy.

    Now, are those statements about our economy and government or about the HR profession? OK, I confess: They are about the economy and government, although the HR profession’s naysayers could easily claim they’re an accurate reflection of the state of HR as well.

    That perception is why HR needs a bailout. Perception is reality, and there is some truth in the stereotypes that cause this perception of HR.

    But there’s a silver lining to this reputational cloud. If you agree that the HR profession as a whole could use a capital infusion (a kinder term for a bailout) to retool, reinvent itself and prepare HR pros everywhere for the challenges that lie ahead, a source of such capital does exist.

    We don’t even have to go into debt to get access to the funds. The Society for Human Resource Management, the professional group of choice for HR professionals everywhere, is sitting on a cash reserve in the neighborhood of $179 million. Most of that cash, which came from dues from its 233,000 members, hasn’t been spent on services.

    To be fair to SHRM, every well-run nonprofit sits on a cash reserve. But now’s not the time to channel the conservative side, button up the business suit and ignore the problem. Now is the time to channel Hank Paulson, spend the cash and double down on the investment in HR pros and the HR profession.

    In a nutshell, the funds for the HR Bailout of 2009 should be focused on technology, leadership and the cultivation of business savvy. In detail, here’s what I would tell SHRM to do with the $179 million it has available:

1. Provide a competitive edge to SHRM members by investing in technology training and the promotion of its use. There’s no area where the HR profession lags more than adoption of technology. SHRM should lead the charge in pushing and prodding HR pros everywhere to use the latest tools in social media. It should provide real training on the use of the tools, and weave them into the SHRM communications structure with the membership to show that SHRM gets technology. The ability to use these tools to communicate affects talent acquisition, retention, professional development and every other competency critical to the performance of HR pros.

2. Coach HR people to have—and defend—strong opinions. This area is where leadership in the field comes into play. If you’re seeking credibility as an HR pro, you not only need to know more about the competencies of HR than that blowhard VP of engineering at your weekly meetings, but you also have to be willing to engage him in front of others when it comes to talent topics. Dave Ulrich calls this the "credible activist" competency, and it means you step forward and advocate for your position on any topic related to your function. You’re the expert, so talk! Engage! Fight!

Via the HR Bailout, SHRM can encourage passive HR professionals to become activists. SHRM should start making its own communications platform (Web and print) a hub of point/counterpoint perspectives. Hire columnists and bloggers and let them duke it out to show the membership it’s OK to have different opinions, and to pitch them aggressively. Once SHRM has accomplished that, it should make the credible activist competency part of the Human Resource Certification Institute body of knowledge and offer training accordingly.

3. Go on the offensive when it matters. More leadership here. I know SHRM has a lot on its lobbying plate, but the fact that most HR pros still don’t know what "EFCA" stands for is unacceptable. All pieces of federal legislation aren’t created equal, so when the stakes are high (as they are with the EFCA), SHRM has an obligation to engage members, educate and train them, and even (gasp!) solicit opinions on how the membership feels on a topic. Once they’ve engaged the membership, I’d like to see someone from SHRM spitting fire on CNN and Fox News, rather than watch a bland (and expensive) attempt at organizational branding via a 30-second commercial.
Of course, you have to have the ability to be a credible activist before you can go on the offensive on any topic. To start, we should see a credible SHRM spokesperson who has been authorized to take the gloves off, and to show the membership that the aggressiveness and advocacy required by the credible activist role is OK.

4. Ensure that the membership knows more about business than does the marketing department. So far, I’ve directed HR bailout money toward developing new competencies in technology, leadership/activism and communications among HR pros. But it’s also time to ensure the membership of the HR club knows enough about finance, marketing and other areas of business to compete as a direct report of a CEO or divisional head. Training and certification on a baseline of business knowledge should be another earmark within the HR Bailout.

5. Update the profile of what a true HR pro looks like, incorporate it into the PHR/SPHR certification and offer retraining and retesting at no cost. I’m an advocate for HR certification, but the six competencies offered by the Human Resource Certification Institute aren’t enough anymore. The institute should add competencies in leadership and communications, technology and business knowledge. It should offer free training and force the membership to retest to maintain the credentials. Some of the new competencies might have to be measured in ways that differ from the traditional test. That’s what the bailout money is for.

6. Use the results of the PHR/SPHR retesting to create a deeper caste system within the membership. If you don’t want to deal with the leadership/activist and business competencies via a retest, that’s OK. You can slide down from the SPHR to the PHR. Don’t want to deal with the technology? That’s cool; we’ve got a lower designation than the PHR where you can still wear some letters. You just can’t keep the ones you have, which is a classic carrot-and-stick incentive strategy. Don’t want to respond to SHRM’s invitations at all as they offer up funds and training via the HR Bailout? Proceed to No. 8 on this list.

7. Promote the new caste system widely, but celebrate the players who transcend the game without certification. I’m including a revamp of the Human Resource Certification Institute’s platform since it’s the language so many understand. But let’s be clear: There are many super HR pros who have achieved a great deal without certification. Let’s use some HR Bailout money to figure out who they are, what makes them tick, then determine how we can get the membership to model their behavior and focus in the areas that are above and beyond the certification curriculum.

8. Kick out the dead wood. Admitting everyone to the ranks of the HR profession leads to lots of cash for SHRM, but cash doesn’t guarantee that kids coming out of college will dream of being HR pros. Let’s raise the bar on what an HR professional is and ask that everyone work on their game. It’s OK to remove those who don’t want more out of their career.

    So that’s my ambitious plan for spending SHRM’s money. SHRM’s the obvious organization to champion the cause, but it will have to change its DNA to make it happen. I hope it can make the transformation.

   My plan looks attractive compared to Hank Paulson’s agenda. Unlike Paulson, I only need $179 million, not $1 trillion. And I’m telling you exactly how I would spend the money.

   Plus, there’s no debt for you, your kids or your kids’ kids. Sweet.