Sunday, May 08, 2011

Hiring HR professionals: What are we thinking?

When you hire someone for your Accounting department, what do you look for? Accounting experience, undoubtedly, but presumably you look for someone with some college-level accounting training as well as basic competencies such as facilities with numbers, conscientiousness, etc.

What about IT support? Again, in most cases you're probably looking for experience with specific hardware or software or general support experience, but in many cases you're searching that resume for formal education/training in IT-related topics.

Connection? For many organizational "support" functions, we look not only for experience but educational experiences that would give the individual a grounding in the basics of the field and (hopefully) train their mind to recognize historical developments as well as connections between concepts.

So why is that when we hire for HR, another support function, our brains fall out our ears and we seem to focus primarily on past experience? This weakness seems common in the public sector but I'm guessing the private sector is not immune.

Phrased another way: Why don't more organizations place value on formal HR education when hiring?

I'm not suggesting that one needs a degree in HR to be good at it, although I do think it limits people. What I'm concerned about is the apparent lack of importance placed on these degrees and what that says about the profession.

Is it because formal HR educational programs don't exist? Nope. According to the College Board, over 350 schools exist with a major in HRM.

Is it because formal education in HR isn't as important for job performance as experience? I'm not aware of any research that shows this to be true (if you are, please enlighten me).

No, I suspect the following:

1) Many HR leaders themselves do not have formal educational training in HR therefore they tend not to think of it as a screening tool (or place much value in it).

2) Similarly, there is a lack of knowledge about HR educational programs--what they offer, the advantage of having gone through one, and how to connect to the school.

3) There are relatively few candidates out there that apply for HR vacancies that have a relevant degree (either as a pure function of the number of individuals that have a degree in HR or because many applicants believe anyone can do HR).

4) HR is still seen as largely transactional and/or not a critical business function, therefore the qualifications sought have more to do with customer service than they do formal training. (I believe this is a large reason why HR outsourcing is easy to contemplate for many executives)

5) Many are simply passing through HR. Many incumbents do not see HR as a "career", but rather a stopping point on their way to...something else. But much like Lightning McQueen (or Doc Hollywood if you prefer), they find they have a hard time leaving, either because they come to like it or they find they're not as employable as they thought.

6) The professional HR organizations and HR publications focus on anecdotes, opinion, and news bits rather than formal study and analysis. SHRM is not SIOP.

So why do I care about this topic? Because I see HR stagnating until it truly becomes a profession and not a loose collection of people who vaguely care about things relating to people management. And part of becoming a true profession is placing formal structure around the path from education to employment.

I'm also concerned because of the relationship between I/O and HR. Ultimately much of what is researched in I/O gets practiced through HR, and there is a close relationship in many people's minds--in fact I would wager most managers haven't the foggiest idea what the difference is. So what impacts HR ultimately impacts I/O.

Maybe it's just not there yet. Maybe I need to be patient. HR's a relatively new field and maybe it just needs time to develop, and to figure out questions like its relationship to I/O.

But given what I've seen, I'm not feeling optimistic. I see HR shops being outsourced or automated, resulting in more IT skills being required than knowledge about research on human behavior. Inevitably this will lead many organizations to lose out on important efficiencies they could be gaining (not to mention improvements in the work environment).

What can be done? I don't have all the answers, just some suggestions:

1) A wider promotion of the value of formal HR education. SHRM, I'm looking at you, as well as the other HR professional organizations.

2) More research on the connection between formal HR education and job performance.

3) Effort on the part of HR leaders to at least consider the potential importance of HR education when hiring for their teams.

4) More effort on the part of HR leaders to establish connections to schools that offer HR degrees and begin programs like internships and formal recruiting.

5) More organizational support (e.g., tuition reimbursement) for staff to obtain HR degrees.

To read more about this issue, I highly recommend starting with the 2007 piece by Sara Rynes and her colleagues.

Hat tip to this HR Examiner article, which helped me crystallize something that's been bothering me for a long time.


Human Resources Management said...

Thank you for this great information, very useful article

Joseph Murphy said...

Great point of view. Standards do not exist.

SHRM did an interesting piece of work a few years back. After an audit of (some significant number) HR degree programs, it was found that there was almost no overlap in the core cirriculum. This was evidence that the formal educational track is as il-defined as as the professional requirements.

SHRM is working to correct that, but it is a slow in making progress.

BryanB said...

Thanks Joe, that's a valuable piece of information.

I did some digging and found SHRM has been up to more than I give it credit for. This report mentions the research you describe as well as other efforts; I'd love to see them feature this more prominently:

You can also see more about their efforts here:

Unfortunately the data seems to confirm the importance placed on experience rather than formal education. Perhaps more effort needs to be made to reach out to those making the hiring decisions.

Pitch Black said...


Some months ago I was too was disappointed to notice that job ads depicted that finance jobs wanted a finance degree, Ops jobs wanted ops major, supply chain jobs wanted logistic experience or major, and so on and so forth.

HR jobs required only a graduate in any discipline. But HR is not alone. Entry jobs of sales/product also wanted any graduate with 'fire any belly'.

You are right that there are not many standards. I reflected to understand that it is not business who are not giving us value, but it is the HR people who helmed in HR earlier and many of existing HR professionals who have not delivered much in terms of value. Many HR professionals have to understand Dave Ulrich's view that doing an activity is not equal to adding value. And to prove any value you must have data and ability to analyze that data.

I have witnessed that many companies know the value of HR and it is also evident from the resources given to HR department.

People with or without education will always exist and there will always be some companies trying to cut costs. But if HR is consistently delivering then I do not see why companies shall not pay more to get that value.

Anonymous said...

Nice article with lots of insightful reading. We have a similar based article on shifting HR thinking that your readers might be interested in. It’s by Garrett O'Keeffe and you can read it here.

let us know what you think and thanks again.

Rick said...

I understand your points concerning formal HR education and I certainly agree that SHRM is an incredible organization and resource for HR professionals. I have over 30 years of corporate Human Resources Management and Leadership experience with companies of all sizes – small, medium, and Fortune 100. My degree is a B.S. in Business Administration and I do not have any HR designations. The main reason for my success has always been to focus on the business needs of the company I was working for and then design HR programs/resources to meet those needs.