Should HR Become a Statutory Profession in South Africa? THE PROS AND CONS by by Marius Meyer

HR GOVERNANCE: The Human Face of Corporate Governance by Marius Meyer & Michael Glensor
July 5, 2018
DESIGN THINKING NEEDS DESIGN THINKERS by Marius Meyer
July 6, 2018

BACKGROUND

On 23 May 2018 the Board of SABPP decided to formally reopen the debate on whether HR should become a statutory profession. A decision was taken to investigate the appetite and need for statutory recognition.   A statutory profession is one in which practitioners legally receive a licence to practice from government. The profession is then regulated by an Act signed into law by the President.  This means that practitioners attempting to practice without being professionally registered may be prosecuted and arrested.  Several other professions followed similar routes such as accounting, psychology and medicine.  In these professions it is considered a risk to society if practitioners are not formally registered and if they do not adhere to continuing professional development (CPD) to keep abreast of trends and developments in their fields. Failure to do so, results in these individuals being deregistered and their professional designations revoked.  It then becomes illegal to practice.  In recent times, some professions such as estate agents that have been non-statutory since its existence have become statutory professions.

In 1982, SABPP was formed as a professional body to professionalise the field of HR. The previous CEO of SABPP, Huma van Rensburg successfully argued in her master’s dissertation completed at the University of Pretoria that HR meets the four requirements of a profession, i.e. a substantial body of knowledge, self-governance, ethics and duty to society. Thus, HR as a profession has evolved over the last four decades.  All large organisations employ HR professionals and the total number of HR professionals in South Africa is estimated as exceeding 100 000. This figure includes practitioners at lower levels such as junior HR officers, to HR Managers in middle management positions, to HR Directors at senior management and board levels in organisations.

During the late 1980’s SABPP prepared a submission to the then Minister of Manpower for HR to become a statutory profession.  A draft HR Profession Bill was prepared and submitted, but rejected by the Minister.  Some practitioners felt that the move towards statutory recognition was premature at the time.  Others felt that more work needs to be done before HR should become a statutory profession, while others are totally against statutory recognition. The market therefore appears to be divided on the issue of statutory profession.  Moreover, despite the fact that 79% of HR Directors represent HR at either Board or Exco level in South African organisations according to a KR study, the credibility and professionalism of HR practitioners are often questioned by line managers and other stakeholders.  Notwithstanding the emergence of pockets of excellence in HR practice at leading companies, the general view among the business community is that HR does not yet function at the full professional level to be recognised as professionals. There appears to be a perceived gap between simply being a recognised occupation on the one hand, to being a full-fledged profession on the other hand.

Again, in March 2018, when SABPP Vice-chairperson, Thandi Thankge was part of the Knowledge Resource panel at the HR Directors conference, the issue of the statutory recognition of HR was raised and SABPP and IPM requested to address this matter.

To stimulate the debate about statutory recognition, I will now present the two sides to the story. Firstly, I will argue in favour of statutory, and secondly, I will present an argument against it.

 

THE CASE FOR STATUTORY RECOGNITION

Over the last decade several national and international developments contributed to a relook on the notion of whether statutory recognition should be pursued:

  • Zambia became the first country in the world in which HR became a statutory profession, and similar developments in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe have reached an advanced stage.
  • Human capital has been identified as the biggest business risk in South Africa, and the HR profession is expected to rise to the occasion in addressing this risk in organisations.
  • While only a handful of universities offered HR qualifications in the 1980’s, over the last 30 years a proliferation of HR programmes country-wide resulted in all universities in South Africa now offer HR qualifications, and a significant increase in post-graduate outputs were achieved, thereby meeting the first pillar of professionalism, i.e. a clear body of knowledge.
  • South Africa became the first country in the world with national HR standards of practice in 2013, and several other countries are now pursuing similar initiatives towards standardisation. Furthermore, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) has started a project to set ISO standards for HR management, and 38 countries are already involved in this initiative.
  • Globally, several HR Competency Models have emerged and in South Africa a new local competency model was developed by SABPP in 2012 to update the first model developed in 1990.
  • The global move towards sustainability and integrated reporting precipitated a need to focus more on the people element of the triple-bottom-line and a high level of HR professionalism is needed to support these efforts. Since 2012, for the first time in the history of the field of management, human capital was formally accepted as one of the six business capitals by the International Integrated Reporting Framework.
  • Several countries have reached a high level of maturity regarding compliance with labour laws, and in general from a governance, risk and compliance perspective, HR functions need to play a stronger role to ensure compliance to labour laws, despite resistance from line managers.
  • In most organisations, people costs constitute the highest cost item in the budget of the organisation, and it is therefore prudent to ensure that people are properly managed in organisations. Sound HR management is thus of utmost importance.
  • Universities and thought leaders in the field of HR Management have managed to produce compelling research showing the direct business impact of HR practices on the bottom-line of the business.
  • The emergence and rapid growth in national and international initiatives to recognise “best employers” or “top employers” has put the spotlight on sound HR practice.
  • Some organisations have employed unqualified individuals in HR positions and many of these people have done damage to the HR profession. Also, inconsistent standards followed by higher education and other learning providers have resulted in universities and HR providers delivering variance in the quality of HR learning provision.
  • Currently, key strategic HR documentation such as employment equity plans and workplace skills plans are signed-off by non-HR professionals such as accountants or managers, of whom many are not supporters of employment equity or workplace training. The credibility of these documents and the commitment of these organisations to drive employment equity and skills development can be questioned, and therefore requires sign-off by qualified HR professionals.
  • The continuation of non-statutory recognition means that SABPP does not have a legal mandate to enter workplaces to investigate unprofessional conduct, and this means that HR as a profession does not have teeth to enforce its professional code of conduct in the workplace.
  • There are many unqualified and unprofessional HR consultants advising organisations on HR practice, and the absence of regulation means that organisations suffer while they get away with poor HR work.
  • Represented by SABPP, HR was one of the first professions to be recognised by SAQA under the National Qualifications Framework Act (Act no 67 of 2008) to recognise professional designations to be uploaded on the National Learners’ Records Database at SAQA.
  • SABPP was accepted by SAQA as an Education Training and Quality Assurance (ETQA) Body under the then SAQA Act, and more recently as an Assessment Quality Partner (AQP) by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO). Hence, the role of SABPP is to function as the “HR SETA” in conducting statutory quality assurance in accordance with the NQF Act and Skills Development Act.
  • On 23 February 2015, it was gazetted that the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Advocate Michael Masutha approved SABPP registered HR professionals as Ex-officio Commissioners of Oaths in accordance with the Justices of Peace and Commissioners of Oaths Act. This development allowed the four highest levels of HR designations of SABPP (i.e. HRA, HRP, CHRP and MHRP) to become Commissioners of Oaths.

 

THE CASE AGAINST STATUTORY RECOGNITION

Despite the above arguments in favour of statutory recognition, several proponents of maintaining the status quo of HR as a non-statutory profession will argue the following:

  • Many other non-statutory professions such as marketing and IT are also non-statutory professions and these professions are thriving despite their status as non-statutory professions. The narrative is that a profession does not need to be statutory in order to grow, develop and thrive.
  • Despite the phenomenal growth of about 1000 newly registered HR practitioners with SABPP per annum, the majority of HR practitioners are not registered professionally and many of them do not have HR qualifications. Hence, if HR becomes a statutory profession tomorrow, they will all lose their jobs. Likewise, in smaller and medium sized organisations, HR work is often done by other line managers or accountants, and they will simply stop doing HR work if it becomes illegal for them to do HR work.  Any HR practices already developed will lose momentum and employees and their organisations will be disadvantaged in the process.
  • There is no research to proof that HR practitioners with HR qualifications perform better than HR practitioners without HR qualifications. In fact, some of the best HR Managers and HR Directors in the country do not have HR qualifications.  As a relatively new profession, the HR field has attracted practitioners from a wide range of fields such as psychology, industrial psychology, sociology, public administration, social work, business management, marketing and even engineering.
  • Several studies have shown that many HR practitioners lack the competencies needed to function effectively as HR practitioners. Giving them statutory recognition will not automatically make them competent overnight.
  • Many HR practitioners are dominated and manipulated by line managers who often force them to either blatantly ignore labour laws, or to side-step laws and good practice in order to take management decisions that are sometimes inhuman or illegal and in worst case scenarios a violation of human rights and international labour standards.
  • HR practitioners do not have the same status in society than other professions that have earned their credibility in their professional practice such as engineering, medicine, psychology and accounting.
  • Although the increase in HR research outputs cannot be questioned, HR is still not widely regarded as a science like other scientific fields of study. Research outputs are dominated by industrial psychology studies, and a large proportion of these studies has no or little practical relevance for HR management.
  • If HR does become a profession, most line managers will struggle to manipulate them, and this could further strain relationships between HR practitioners and line managers. The HR-business partner model implemented successfully over the last two decades in many organisations may be under threat.
  • From a cost perspective, many organisations will not be able to afford paying professional registration fees for all members of their HR departments, and are likely to retrench most of their HR practitioners or complete outsource the HR function to external providers.
  • South Africa already has a myriad of labour laws, and another “labour law” in the form of an HR Profession Act will exacerbate the current onerous compliance regime. Already, the Department of Labour seems to be unable to enforce the existing labour laws, who will monitor and enforce the HR Profession Act?
  • If the business case for statutory recognition is so strong, why have only four countries pursued this path so far? The stark reality is that in 99% of countries HR remains a non-statutory profession.
  • Recently, some line managers have become active supporters of HR and people management.Some of them have started to take full ownership of HR management in their departments or business units. This has yielded positive organisation cultures and business results. If HR becomes a statutory profession, line managers will not be allowed to continue implementing HR practices and business leadership in HR practices will then be withdrawn.
  • Unlike medicine, engineering or accounting, HR deals with people and work design issues and is therefore not an exact science. There are too many areas requiring judgment and flexibility – and converting these areas to clear professional standards of practice remains an ongoing challenge.
  • Despite many attempts and initiatives to show the bottom-line of HR impact, the reality is that most HR practitioners are unable to provide clear evidence of their tangible business impact.
  • Given the fact that previous efforts in achieving statutory recognition have failed, what makes things different this time around? If the business case is not strong enough, or is once again at risk of being rejected, aren’t we wasting time and effort in pursuing the same losing battle?

The above points for and against statutory recognition is not an exhaustive list and is merely intended to open the debate and to provide some background for a researcher (or team of researchers) to plan a more comprehensive analysis of the pros and cons of statutory recognition.   In fact, some of these factors may not be relevant at all.   It is essential to provide a detailed analysis of the implications for the HR profession and all stakeholders of both positions before conclusions are drawn and a final recommendation is made.

THE WAY FORWARD

The SABPP invites researchers to approach our research department with a draft research proposal to investigate the research problem.  To enhance the independence and scientific methodology of the research, it could also form part of a master’s or PhD study.  Any form of collaborative research involving multiple stakeholders or sub-projects will be encouraged.  The study will be undertaken with access to SABPP information and resources relevant to the project.  The results of the study will be presented to the new SABPP board in 2019.  It is important to realise that the principles of objectivity and independence may not be compromised. A balanced, yet well argumented position needs to be developed and supported with clear facts and scientific rigour.  The project may not be manipulated to advance an argument in favour of statutory recognition, given the fact that this may be seen as self-serving in the market place.

The SABPP Board will consider the research report for the purpose of decision-making and national HR governance, but reserves the right to apply its mind in considering all alternatives governing the HR profession in future. Given the importance  of the study and its potential national and international impact, the SA Board approved an amount of R50 000 as a bursary for the successful post-graduate student embarking on the study.

The Project Governance team will oversee the project and serve as a reference group and periodic feedback reports to the SABPP Board will be studied and discussed by its members:

Thandi Thankge, Vice-Chairperson: SABPP

Marius Meyer, CEO: SABPP

Xolani Mawande, COO: SABPP

Yolisa Nxgabazi,  Board member: SABPP

Mpolai Liau, Board member: SABPP

Penny Abbott, Research and Policy Advisor: SABPP

For enquiries or an expression of interest, please contact Marius Meyer on (011) 045 5400 or (010) 007 5906 or marius@sabpp.co.za