Meisinger: ‘Write the Next Chapter for HR’

By Steve Bates Jun 23, 2008
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CHICAGO—In her farewell address after two decades at the forefront of the HR profession, SHRM President and CEO Susan R. Meisinger, SPHR, told HR professionals that she’s counting on them to take HR to even greater heights.

Speaking at the opening general session of SHRM’s 60th Annual Conference & Exposition held here in McCormick Place on June 22, Meisinger drew two standing ovations as she made an emotional and inspiring presentation before actor Sidney Poitier came onstage for his keynote address.

“You and SHRM have owned a piece of my heart these many years,” said Meisinger. “But now it’s time for others to advance the profession and continue to serve you as professionals.”

Meisinger, who is retiring at the end of June, had more sad news for the HR professionals gathered for this year’s conference, for which the theme is “Great Minds Coming Together.” She noted that SHRM Board Chair Janet Parker had to leave Chicago because of a death in her family. Robb Van Cleave, SPHR, chair designate for 2009-10, is filling in for Parker at the conference.

But Meisinger asked attendees to focus on the exciting challenges that lie ahead for them and the profession as a whole. She laid out four “dares” to her audience: Dare to be proud; dare to be bold; dare to take charge of your profession; dare to be personal.

“Never be apologetic about the significance of what you do,” Meisinger said. “Our profession has changed business, it’s changed society, and it’s changed the lives of millions of people around the world—all for the better.

“We’ve done nothing short of bringing about a paradigm shift in the workplace” by making workplaces safer, changing the way people think about work/life balance, helping workers plan their careers and retirement, and helping organizations find and develop “new talent for new business strategies.”

“Consider this,” she continued. “There are executives from around the globe here today because they want to learn from you. So be proud of yourselves, and of how our profession has changed and will continue to change the world.”

In exhorting HR professionals to be bold, Meisinger acknowledged that the job is getting more difficult and that “you have to learn new skills all the time.” However, “we bring a unique perspective to every workplace issue,” she added, “and we have an obligation to do what’s right.”

Meisinger conceded that sometimes “doing what’s right isn’t popular.” For example, she said, SHRM recently became the first professional organization to support a federal prohibition on discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. “Some of our members weren’t happy about this.”

And SHRM was criticized in some circles for not coming out immediately in support of a proposed expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In that case, SHRM called for a compromise on the issue that now has the support of enough key stakeholders to have a good chance of being enacted. “So be bold,” she said. “Speak up with confidence. Refuse to be background.”

Taking charge of the profession, said Meisinger, means setting the bar high for HR. “Let’s face it,” she observed. “Not everyone has the skills, the abilities and the character to be a successful HR professional. You do.”

That means taking responsibility for the changing perceptions of HR, and moving toward standards of HR competence. “A profession isn’t really a profession if it doesn’t have standards, norms and ethics,” said Meisinger. She said that “certification is becoming a minimum requirement” for success in HR, noting that more than 100,000 professionals will be certified by the end of 2008.

Her final challenge to HR: Never forget “what makes you the person you are. You’re in HR because you’re competent, you’re curious, you’re courageous and you’re caring. … Don’t forget to keep the ‘human’ in human resources. Make it personal.”

Meisinger told attendees: “Now it’s my turn to make it personal. … As I look forward to beginning a new chapter in my life, I take some personal pride in knowing that SHRM is stronger, bigger, more respected and better prepared for the future than when I arrived.”

She acknowledged that, “for the first time in all the years you’ve known me, I may be at a loss for words. How do I compose an ending to an incredibly rewarding chapter in my career, a chapter during which I’ve made so many friends?”

Gesturing to the packed general session audience, she continued: “I’m flattered to count you—yes, everybody here today—among those friends. You’re the reason SHRM has been such an important part of my life for these past 20-plus years.”

Many exciting changes are ahead for HR in the United States and around the world, she noted. “You’ve already shown what special people can do when they choose to stand up and change the world,” she said. “I know you’re going to continue to make me proud.”

Steve Bates is manager of online editorial content for SHRM.

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