The Purpose of HR

Conceptual image of teamwork - 6. 3D image.

Most people I’ve talked to give their Human Resources departments mixed reviews. Some organizations have vibrant and influential HR functions, while in others HR is viewed as an administrative or compliance function that is more of a nuisance than something that provides value.

Where HR is primarily administrative, you’ll find frustrated HR people who often complain that no one listens to them or appreciates all they do for the organization. The lack of appreciation is hardly surprising, because their focus is on fulfilling their administrative duties (enrolling people in benefits plans, following up on paperwork, hanging the required posters, etc.) that only get attention when someone messes up. Any organizational power they have (and it ain’t much) comes from generating the fear of legal disaster if people fail to follow the rules. They are experts at providing you with all the reasons why you can’t do something, so many people deal with them as we used to deal with our parents: ignore them as much as possible and grudgingly comply when necessary.

While there’s no question that HR has to provide operational excellence, dot the i’s and cross the t’s, that’s simply not enough to earn kudos. Those are basic administrative tasks that customers of HR services expect from any HR department as part of the package. How HR provides real value to an organization has little to do with the paperwork.

Let’s get real. HR has no tangible power in any organization. HR generates no revenue (in most cases) and compared to other more powerful or “bottom line” functions, doesn’t have much of a budget. Any organization can outsource or automate any HR function if they don’t find value in the HR Department they have. Less drastic but more common is the tendency of managers and employees to work around HR so they don’t have to deal with silly bureaucracy and a thousand reasons why they can’t do what they want to do.

So, what can an HR leader do to change this mindset and provide value? First, you have to change your focus from administration, compliance and paperwork and focus on the people you’re serving. The only legitimate purpose for any HR Department is to help the people in the organization make effective choices to enable the organization and its people to achieve their goals. HR’s role is to facilitate and the core meaning of the word “facilitate” is to make things easy. HR’s orientation is one of responsiveness to both immediate and long-term business needs, providing both operational excellence and strategic insight. HR never works for HR purposes; HR is there only to serve its customers.

Here are some examples of how HR can accomplish this purpose, role and mission:

  • Recruiting: Design recruiting processes that are both thorough and fast for both candidates and hiring managers. Ensure that information is organized and presented in such a way that both candidates and managers can make informed and valid hiring decisions. Constantly stay in touch with candidates and managers to avoid any unpleasant misunderstandings that can derail the hiring process. Do the usual metrics, but realize that success in hiring only comes when both the candidate and the hiring manager are happy with the choice they made—both on day one and on the one-year anniversary.
  • Benefits: Design your benefits plans so that demographics, job market and financial considerations are in balance. Watch your utilization numbers and factor them into any decision-making: they tell you what people value. Involve your employees in evaluating benefits plan designs before you launch them. Most importantly, organize the information on plan choices so that it is easy for the average employee to make the best selection possible given their life circumstances.
  • Employee Relations Issues: Stay neutral. Your best chance of protecting the company is to avoid taking a pro-management protect-the-company stance, because all that does is force the employee into a get-an-attorney stance. You can best protect the company by being honest and fair, by pointing out choices and consequences, and by listening carefully to all sides of a problem.
  • Compensation: Accept the fact that everyone thinks they’re an expert on compensation and listen to their beliefs, no matter how un-HR they may seem. The goal of any compensation program is to avoid pay dissatisfaction and provide motivation where feasible. Have solid market data on hand to facilitate management decision making. Stay current on the competition and on market trends.
  • Strategy: While it’s important to align all HR programs with the company’s strategy, HR has to be a player in the strategic decision-making process. The most important contribution the HR leader can make is to remain in the facilitator role, providing solid factual information, making helpful observations on group dynamics, rephrasing ideas, drawing out ideas that may be incomplete and playing the wet blanket when it looks like everyone just wants to do what the CEO wants.
  • Service: Fundamentally, the value of HR comes down to what you do when a customer drops in or gives you a call. Drop what you’re doing and give your customer your full attention, no matter what their status. Everyone in your organization is a customer who needs your help making choices. Help them.

These examples may appear simple, but there is a lot of work involved to put yourself in the position of truly helping people. HR people need to model continuous learning—not only in their HR professional speciality, but in other HR specialty areas and business itself. HR people need to have the most flexible and open minds in the organization, because you never know what human beings are going to come up with next. HR cannot be “The Department of No” and achieve a customer-positive mission.

In the end, any power HR has in an organization is based on the integrity and credibility of the people in the HR Department. You project integrity when you listen and tell the truth. You gain credibility when you deliver on your commitments to your customers.

And those things are simple.