Where oh where do I start? I’ve been asked the question of, “beyond hiring and firing, what does HR do” so many times during my career that I lost count 18 years ago when my career started. Before I attempt to answer this question I think it’s very important that we talk about the history of HR and where and why it originated. For the record, I am absolutely no expert in HR history, but I think I have a fairly good idea of its origination.
According to Fast Company it is believed that the first HR department was established by The National Cash Register Company in 1901 following a strike. At the time the idea was to have a “personnel” department that was responsible for administrative tasks relating to work such as safety, pay, dealing with employee grievances, and various administrative tasks. The core responsibility was centred around compliance, and at the time it made sense. Fast forward 100+ years HR administration is still very much a core part of what HR does but can easily be achieved by using HR software. But we all know many HR departments still thrive at pushing paper around.
So What is the New Role of HR?
If you take a few moments and think about why HR even started in the first place you may come to the conclusion that our world was changing. During the pre-World War I and II era the world of work was changing as technology was advancing and we needed to adapt to our new realities. We’re still adapting, and we always will, with HR being right in the thick of it all.
When I started business school many years ago (I’ll keep the exact year under wraps) I knew there was something interesting about the role of the employee to help enable an organization to succeed. Through a school project with a professional sports team I discovered that a business idea is just an idea that means nothing unless people do something with it. The employee needs to put something into action to make the idea come to reality. If that employee was not there to do something then the idea is nothing more than a bunch of words on a page, white board, or whatever. So how does an organization maximize the employee effort to do his/her best work, for the benefit of the organization? This “how” is what HR does.
So in essence, HR does 3 things.
- HR helps to attract and recruit top talent.
- HR helps to engage and maximize productivity of employees.
- HR helps to retain top talent.
This may be simplistic but think about this. In order for an organization to succeed you need employees. Not only that but you need the right employees with the right skills and experience at the right time. Do you recruit a Marketing Manager or Marketing Director? Where do you find these people? How much do you pay them? What is the employee value proposition that you would present to top prospects? How on earth do you leverage social media and technology to scale your recruiting? Do you know what your employer brand is? Do you know which channels are the best ones to maximize employe brand awareness? How do you build targeted talent pipelines to meet future workforce needs? How do you go about building a workforce plan that will help your organization meet it’s objectives? What about optimizing your career site so that the right people do what you want them to do? Guess what? HR does all of this.
Now that you’ve hired an employee and they start working for what on earth do you do? Enter bucket #2. How on earth do you onboard new employees? Have you documented the process, and does it align with your values and how you want new employees to feel? How do you quickly get the new employee contributing and performing? What about creating goals? What about employee training — current job skills, leadership, future job skills and personal interests? What happens when you’re faced with a very serious sexual harassment claim? What about terminations? Do you know anything about workplace safety, workplace accommodation, and other health and safety related legislation in the locations you do business? You do know that if you do business in several countries, and even states/provinces within these countries, employment legislation is very different. What about performance management processes and philosophy? What HR software and tools do you use (a.k.a. HR tech stack)? How do your managers reward and recognize employees? What about measuring employee engagement, and then helping leaders and managers action on high risk areas? Guess what? HR does all of this.
The days of working for the same company, and even same job, for your entire career is over. People, particularly millennials, change jobs faster than you can blink an eye. The speed at which people move within organizations, outside, and even back inside, is rapid, just like the pace of business. It is not uncommon for teams to be staffed with people sitting in different countries around world, connected by super-powered and cheap technology like Slack and many other social collaboration tools. If you can retain your top (this is important to note) people for a little bit longer than the average then you’re doing a good thing. How do you retain these people? How do you keep their interest and energy high in light of the fact that our attention spans are now completely shot, and we get bored incredibly quickly? Do you even know what will keep your top people from leaving? How can you ensure they are continuously learning and moving forward, and upward? Guess what? HR does all of this.
The world of work is changing so fast, and it truly is HR’s role to ensure that the organization is always ready for next wave of change, and our people have the right skills to succeed. Whether it’s re-skilling the organization to successfully integrate the power of artificial intelligence, or finding ways to leverage technology while reducing operating costs and increasing scalability of the HR function, HR’s pulse is always on both the present and future-state organization. A true HR practitioner is a business partner (yes, I know we hear this all the time)… what we do is driven by market shifts impacting the world of work and the organization, and what the organization wants to achieve.
A perfect example I always use is a growing tech company making a strategic decision to either sell or inject funding into the business to grow rapidly. What HR decides to do depends on this business decision. So, to answer your question about what HR does, we are responsible for attracting, finding and recruiting the right talent, then engaging them so that they realize maximum performance, and then figuring out a way to retain top people. It’s no easy feat, let me tell you. For 99.9% of the time we play in the grey zone because we’re dealing with people, and each person is unique by virtue of being a person.
So, yes we do hire and fire… and a gazillion other things.