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I Need a Lot of Initials Behind My Name…Don’t I?


Bob Baker, BBJ Consulting Service Every so often, there are debates about initials representing degrees, licenses, certifications… and which ones, if any, ‘belong’ behind a name. Usually these discussions start during a standard or guideline committee meeting where part of the topic is education, training and skills needed to properly carry out some activity. These discussions sometimes grow beyond the committee meeting and are debated through email strings, online discussion groups and probably even tavern brawls.
Eventually participants exhaust their arguments or grow tired of the topic and direct their thoughts to other subjects and the debate goes away; for a while. Several things seem apparent related to these debates:
· Nothing is ‘finally’ resolved; the debates seem to repeat the same issues.
· Most participants have pretty strong commitments (close to passionate) to their positions.
· Since it keeps coming up it is probably an important matter.
To date, I have kind of sat on the sidelines and observed these discussions/debates as I have not had any strong feelings one way or the other. Today, after reading the latest string relating to one of these discussions, an ad came across my desk for a Webinar titled, “What You Need to Know About Advancement And Professional Development Through Certifications”…for ‘only’ $127.00. Reading that made me realize that it is a subject that I have both some thoughts about and opinions that are only partly formed and that I need to think through. So, I decided to write this and share my thought process.
Why put initials behind your name?
I can think of three reasons why someone might want to add initials behind their name on correspondence (there are probably others, but, I will stick with those):

  1. Pride of Accomplishment;
  2. Needed for Trade; and
  3. Perceived to add ‘value’ to your name and reputation
    Pride – I believe this is a reason that should not be a subject for debate. We live in a society that values and aggressively protects individual freedom. If an individual has achieved something they are proud of and want to advertise that accomplishment to the world by placing initials after their name; that is their right. Rather then trying to prevent them from doing so, I believe, we should defend that right and oppose any one who would try to limit it.
    Having stated that position, I admit that we may have opinions about and even be amused by what some individuals choose to list as accomplishments. That will vary greatly from individual to individual. There are some who would consider any initial short of NL (Nobel Laureate) as ‘unworthy’ while others would proudly list KD (Kindergarten Diploma). That wonderful diversity is part of what makes the USA such an interesting and delightful place to live. At the same time, we do not have any obligation to make any policy, rule or standard that gives one individual an advantage over another simply because they decide to list some initials after their name. Just as it is their right to choose how they represent themselves, it is our right to decide how we feel about their choice. Hopefully we will be decent enough to not hold them up to public ridicule if they make choices we would not.
    Needed for trade – This is also pretty clear. It is determined by law or regulation. For example, one needs a certain level of professional qualification (or certification) to practice medicine (MD, RN…). There are many other professions that require a license that is granted by a government authority such as a state professional licensing board. The regulations that set up these requirements are normally very specific about what experience, knowledge (established by one or more tests) and other competencies an individual must demonstrate to obtain the license.
    Although one can always debate if the requirements for the license are overly strict or not strong enough, they are what they are and can only be changed through a regulatory process and not in some committee meeting. As a result, when we create a new standard, we can either be silent on the licensing requirements or refer to current regulations. The standard or guideline cannot change a licensing requirement. We cannot create a standard that says, “If you take Joe’s three day course; you can cut hair”. The individual must obtain a Barber License from the state even if they do complete Joe’s course.
    Perceived to add value - This is the area where all the debate, discussion and controversy tends to show up and I ask: why? To me, it is pretty simple. Everyone puts the initials that they feel will enhance their image/standing in whatever industry they are involved in and the marketplace sorts it all out. Again, it is a free country; you should be able to do what you want and no one can stop you. Others may think you are silly, overly impressed with yourself or an outright fool, but, in the final analysis, it is none of their business.
    However, many feel driven to make it their business. This most often comes up during development or revision of industry standards and guidelines. It somehow seems totally logical and appropriate. If a Consensus Body is going to work to come to agreement on how various tasks are best completed, it follows that they should also make some effort to come to consensus on providing guidance about what knowledge, skills, abilities and/or qualifications individuals need to perform those tasks. Thus, after defining tasks and their performance standards, the committee will often strive to develop a description of those who are able to properly carry out the task. I suggest that is about as easy as finding the Holy Grail was of old.
    I think it is proper for a standard or guideline to list what licenses or other qualifications are required by law or regulation. Those developing the standard may feel that the bar to obtain the license is set too low (or high) and they may be right. However there is no arguing with the facts. The license requirements were set by a governmental authority (hopefully through some type of consensus process) that was legally empowered to do so. As a result the requirement has the force of law behind it and no one can argue with that simple fact. So it is defensible and not a matter of opinion or judgment to cite the lawful requirement.
    It is an entirely different story with all of the many other Degrees, Certifications, Certificates, etc. out there. The people who have earned, worked for, purchased or otherwise acquired those documents are proud of them or for some reason would like to see others recognize them as significant accomplishments or important credentials so they will advocate to see them mentioned in as many forums as possible. The pressure on a consensus body to include at least some qualification criteria beyond those prescribed by statute is intense. The problems are two-fold:
    · Very few consensus bodies, if any, have the time or resources to completely and fairly evaluate (or even identify) all of the credentials that are available. Thus any list will be incomplete and may leave out some really appropriate credentialed person who is extremely well qualified to do the job.
    · Even if a committee were able to secure a complete list of all the credential holders and their qualifications, it would take an additional massive effort to determine that the subject skill sets are really necessary to successful completion of the task or job.
    Some argue that it is OK to consider credentials that are academic in nature. There is some sense in that because educational institutions go to great lengths to assure that persons who are given diplomas or advanced degrees have really obtained the body of knowledge consistent with the degree. However, the challenge here is to validate that the degree is really needed to successfully complete the task. The committee that is developing a standard for Underwater Basket Weaving (UBW) may be tempted to mandate that only those with an UBW degree be allowed to weave baskets underwater. However, there are probably many individuals out there who are extremely proficient at underwater basket weaving, but, do not hold a UBW degree. Is it defensible to deny them the right to weave away?
    There is another argument and that is one often advanced by organizations that fund and support standards development projects and also offer various certifications (and possibly even training that can help individuals qualify for those certification). They assert correctly that without the revenues from certification and training activities, they could not afford to support standards development as the revenue from sales of the standards alone does not offset the expense of developing them properly.
    I support that position; however, feel there is a risk for an organization that chooses to follow that path. If they are perceived as being less than totally ethical in choosing the certifications that will be permitted or recommended in the standard, persons who do not have the named certifications may object so effectively that the standard is never accepted and becomes part of the Standard of Care in the industry. That is tragic as all of the development expense and effort would then be wasted.
    One way out of this is for organizations to seek acknowledgment of their certification process by a third party and thus gain a perception of high quality and rigor. That is a good idea as this is exactly the mechanism that has proven successful in the standards world.
    In North America, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) are perceived to add credibility to a standard when either of their seals is attached. This is because both organizations have established high standards, enforced them for decades and as a result, have huge memberships composed of large and high quality organizations, companies, and government agencies…they are recognized; almost universally. This level of perceived credible endorsement does not yet exist in the Certification world.
    Both ANSI and CSI also offer or endorse Certifications; however, their endorsements are not yet seen as necessary by the vast majority of entities offering the various certifications. In addition, some point to the Council of Engineering & Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB) or some other endorser as setting their certification aside from the herd as something special. Even though one or more of these boards may enforce very rigid criteria, even the largest has only a couple dozen members so none have achieved the level of broad based support and recognition that clearly sets them apart.
    Evolution, Not Revolution
    Gaining credibility is something that normally takes time. ANSI was formed in 1918 and CSI during World War II, so each has had decades to demonstrate the objectivity and quality that has let to their visibility, acceptance and respect. Some of the organizations that certify various organizations that offer certifications today may be seen as the essential path to credibility 50 years from now; none have that status today.
    An interesting parallel can be seen by looking at the auto repair industry as compared to HVAC service industry. In the 1970s, a certification body called Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) was formed; supported by manufacturers and others. Few, if anyone cared. The organization struggled to keep going as few mechanics or their employers saw any advantage to taking the time, effort or expense to become ‘certified’. The public did not know or care.
    Today, few, if any auto service or repair organizations will employ personnel who are not ASE Certified in one or more areas. Over time, the public has come to perceive ASE as meaning quality and demand that evidence of knowledge, skill and ability. NATE (the ASE for the HVAC service industry) is in almost exactly the same position as ASE was in the 1970s.
    Will NATE certification be demanded in the future? Call me in 50 years and I will let you know. Changing the perceptions and behaviors of the public takes time.
    There are exceptions. ASHRAE started a certification program around ten years ago and ASHRAE Certifications are already widely accepted and valued in the Building and HVAC design, operation and maintenance community. This is because ASHRAE, with some 53,000 members and chapters in 132 countries around the world was already seen as the dominant influence over the built environment. In addition, since it is a Professional Society as opposed to a Trade Association and has a broad membership base of Engineers, Academics, Manufacturers and Consultants it is perceived as being more objective and balanced than some who offer certifications as their only or major activity.
    This has hopefully been an interesting discussion, however, it leaves us with two burning questions:
    · Should standards we develop include either a recommendation or requirement that only persons holding a given certification or range of certifications be allowed to do that work? I will give a qualified; Yes, meaning the sponsoring organization must be ready to accept and live with the risk and responsibility that comes with that decision. The risk is that the requirement they have established will be seen as so unreasonable (or downright wrong) that the entire standard is never accepted as part of the ‘Standard of Care’ in the industry. The responsibility is that they must make a ‘good faith effort’ to identify every credential that would reasonably qualify one to perform the necessary task or function and include all of them. However they will fail at this as there are simply too many ways that an individual can be qualified to properly perform a function; they can never completely evaluate all of them. If they succeed; congratulations! If they fail it may be, ok, a disaster or something in between. Hopefully, their standard will not be rejected as a result nor will complaints rise to the level of litigation; good luck on whichever path is chosen.
    · Should I include initials behind my name representing the credentials that I hold? – Absolutely! If you have worked hard, invested time and money or made some significant accomplishment, you have a right to be proud of that and show the world. If enough people with the same credentials feel like you do, that set of credentials may eventually be recognized by society at large and set you apart from the herd. At the same time, recognize that there is a risk. Others will judge you by those initials. Some will say, “Wow, I did not know she was a UBW; I’m impressed.” Others may react negatively. They may be jealous that they do not have that certification. They may ridicule you because you have ten sets of initials for certifications no one has ever heard of. Still, it is your right and your judgment alone should guide you.
    Have fun and enjoy; and may your certification(s) set you aside as the “expert” you want to be seen as.
    Bob Baker is a consultant to the ‘built environment’ and the HVAC operation and maintenance, IAQ, Infection Control and like; providing services to building owners. He also provides expert opinions related to the legal community. He can be reached at 813-217-5273 or BBaker@BBJConsultingService.com.

Thanks Kevin a good one for all to read… … Roy

Thanks Kevin. Excellent read.

I agree