YourForce: Who Should Run HR?

By Mike Prokopeak

Apr. 6, 2014

There’s usually not much controversy in HR work.

Want to recruit bright, qualified people? Have at it. A career path with growth and development opportunities? Couldn’t agree more. We should avoid discriminatory practices? No arguments.

That’s not to say there’s never disagreement. One topic guaranteed to get folks riled up is:  Who should run HR? Some argue the profession is on par with engineering or finance and the boss should have years of academic study and pass rigorous testing. Others say it’s not that complicated. We’re better served picking an outsider who brings business acumen.Mike Prokopeak

So when we called newly minted General Motors CEO Mary Barra an HR professional in our coverage, it touched a nerve (See letter to the editor, below).

Mike Prokopeak is Workforce's editorial director. Comment below or email Follow Prokopeak on Twitter at @MikeProkopeak.

When Is an HR Pro Not an HR Pro?

By Ronald C. Pilenzo

Your article “GM Gives Keys to First Female CEO, Drives Change” in the January issue of Workforce draws attention to some flawed conclusions about human resources and those who work in it.Ronald C. Pilenzo

The article states that Mary Barra, who became the CEO of General Motors Co., “is one of the few HR professionals to reach the pinnacle of the corporate ladder.” In my opinion, her service as the head of GM’s HR function does not make her an “HR professional.” However, it draws attention to the fact that she had “no HR experience and an engineering degree.”

What is troublesome here is the continuing practice of CEOs who appoint non-HR professionals to head the HR function in their companies. If you read the “appointments” page of various business publications, you will find that about 50 percent of all CHRO appointments follow this pattern. The question then is why? There are several good reasons and some not so much. (See and

In short, HR should examine the question of why only half of those working in the HR field earned degrees in HR. Why then would someone without a degree in HR be hired, let alone promoted to senior HR positions without the functionally appropriate college education and proven HR work experience?

A substantial part of the reason is that in the other recognized professions (engineering, accounting, medicine and law), those who are employed in these fields are put through a rigorous process of screening and selection, attend colleges with standardized core curriculum in college, and finally pass rigorous exams and competency tests in these fields. HR has no such process or requirement.

Those entering HR come from a wide variety of academic disciplines and a diversity of backgrounds. In addition, HR has no professional standards or benchmarks of achievement that are used to measure performance against a body of knowledge. Thus, there is some logic to why CEOs sometimes select their CHRO based on trust and that person’s performance in areas outside of the HR function. 

In truth, HR has become a “learned science” that will admit almost anybody. Credentialing programs such as those sponsored by the Certification Institute established by the Society for Human Resource Management are one of only a few examples of an attempt to establish HR as a bona fide profession.

This alone is not enough. Another serious flaw in the practice of HR is that those in the field have little guidance in how to apply the body of knowledge in their work. Without the development of proven principles, practices and guidelines to follow such as the Financial Accounting Standards Board has in accounting, HR practitioners are left on their own to interpret applications of what they know about HR. In essence, HR has become an “anything goes” field.  

If HR desires to achieve the recognition it seeks as “a key contributor,” it must move to a new paradigm in which there is an agreed to body of knowledge in HR based on academic and applied research. Certifications could be required before one is employed in HR.

Unless and until HR shows it is a proven field of professional endeavor, it will continue to devour itself with inconsistent practices. The question here is who will take the leadership for moving HR to the next level? If HR doesn’t do it, someone else will.

Ronald C. Pilenzo is the president and CEO of The Global HR Consultancy and spent nearly 11 years as president of the Society for Human Resource Management beginning in 1980. Comment below or email

Mike Prokopeak is Workforce’s editor in chief.

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