Ok HR…What exactly do you DO here?

The Role of HR

The field of Human Resources is something of a catch-all. The typical HR professional or department is responsible for all the employee-related functions within a company: recruiting and retaining employees, compensation and benefits, training and development, employment law compliance, and on and on. The role often inadvertently also includes secondary things – and this is the real catch-all part. Those secondary things are generally items that don’t fit well in other roles – a monthly newsletter, organizing the company party, employee birthdays and anniversaries, finding the boss the perfect corporate holiday card…in my experience, there seems to be a lot of knocks on the door followed by, “I know it’s not really your job, but will you….”

In my world as an HR professional, the answer to such questions is almost always yes. Even when I say no because I know it’s not going to be something I’m even remotely good at, the answer is along the lines of, “I don’t think I’ll be the best person for that, but let me bring in….”. HR is not for the lazy, the unmotivated or the short-sighted! I am a resource no matter what – there’s no “that’s not my job”. My job as an HR professional and now a consultant is to contribute to the company’s success.

In my experience, the role of HR is not always clearly defined or well-utilized. I believe that a lack of understanding of what HR can do for you leads to poor HR-related decisions, including who should fulfill the role and what that role really is. Unfortunately, HR is often a catch-all in another way. Say a small organization has a great office manager that is ready for the next step. Without much room for growth, she is promoted to HR Manager. She has no HR training or prior experience. She’s on her own in these circumstances. Good with people and well-organized, she’s given the role and a desk. Does she have the right resources and knowledge to do the job? Not a bit. The employee isn’t the problem here, however. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and the importance of HR professionals.

Am I saying this because it’s my field? I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit my own bias. I’ve worked hard to be great at my job and I don’t think using the field as an overflow bin is in my best interest – or that of the company in question. Typically, such practices don’t allow the person to fulfill the role to its greatest extent. Now, if you’re an awesome HR professional who started in the field in exactly this way, don’t think I’m completely disregarding you. There are plenty of people who are put in an HR role and do their homework and use their resources and become excellent representatives of the field. On the other hand, there are many examples of people who are placed in the role who process hires and terminations and take phone calls and have no idea what else they should be doing.

Even when a great HR manager is hired, a misunderstanding of the role of HR can hinder progress and limit the contributions that HR can make to your company. If HR is kept out of meetings about budget, strategic planning, or management decisions, the department is doing the job blindly. If you don’t let your HR professionals in on what makes your company tick, what you really want, and what your overall goals are, the ability to make any decisions based on the big picture is just gone. You’ve taken a contributor to success and put them in a transactional role – file this, answer that…but don’t get in the real business.

The central issue here is an understanding of what HR is really supposed to do for an organization. If a company sees HR as something of a necessary evil or an annoyance, the HR department will never be more than that. HR is not just employee relations and paperwork. HR is gaining ground – many larger companies have elevated the HR department to have a seat in the C-suite, allowing HR to have an active role in strategy and vision. This allows for a much stronger relationship between the abstract goals and what is actually happening with your employees, as HR decisions are being made in the context of your priorities and goals.

Think about it differently. An HR professional should be a direct and indirect ambassador of the company mission, vision and goals. A company partner in achieving the next step and moving in the direction envisioned by the stakeholders. All other tasks are secondary to this, and should be directly influenced by it.

What is it that I mean with this utopian view of my world? I mean I don’t just fill a job with a body. I recruit the right employees who will not just do the job, but do so in the context of the company’s values and organizational culture. I don’t sit behind a desk taking employee complaints or conducting satisfaction surveys. I carefully design a workplace and benefits package that retains the type of employee that the company needs to move forward. I don’t just ensure compliance, but I carefully review the bottom line and balance expenditures with returns when it comes to employee-related costs. How do I know how to do that? I have the right training and experience, and I clearly understand the potential value HR represents in a company.

Is your HR department a partner in achieving the goals you’ve set for your company? Is your HR professional a champion for your mission and values? Do you bring HR into strategic planning sessions and regular corporate meetings? If the answer is no, you may be ready for an overhaul!

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