HR Function

What does human resources do?

HR meeting

This might sound like a silly question, but it’s not as silly as you might think. After all, human resources – often simply called “HR” – is an umbrella term for many different functions within your organisation. And if you ask a bunch of different people “what do human resources do?” – then you’ll get a bunch of different answers.

The basic primer

Because HR deals with so many areas of business, it’s quite difficult to sum it up in one sentence. But I’ve never been shy of a challenge, so I’ll give it a go.

What do human resources do?

The HR (human resources) department is responsible for managing the employee lifecycle, from recruitment to retirement and covering everything in between - including training, benefits, discipline and payroll.

In some organisations, HR responsibilities are separated into their own departments. And not all organisations classify certain functions as HR functions - for example, some consider payroll a standalone area of business.

But as a general rule, HR covers the employee lifecycle – and it is a very broad term!

Mixed perceptions about what HR actually does

Because HR is such a broad umbrella, you tend to find that there are mixed perceptions from people about what HR actually does. Some people say that this is because HR doesn’t do a great job of managing its own publicity, meaning colleagues are confused or misguided about what HR is actually responsible for.

1. Is HR there to protect the business?

2. Is HR there to fight the corner for the employee?

3. Is HR there to simply process data?

But I don't actually think any particular perception is more, or less, correct, than another. I find that mixed perceptions are often just a result of mixed priorities and organisational styles.

The fact is, different organisations have different HR needs. Not all organisations need a unique HR specialist in every single area – some will get along just fine with an HR generalist who can look after all the different elements of the employee lifecycle. Of course, sometimes, HR departments do find themselves assigning specialists, who are dealing with very specific responsibilities.

To give you some examples of this, I spoke to a few people from different organisations, to find out how the perspectives on HR’s responsibility differed.

HR is the policymaker

For many organisations, HR’s primary role is to track rules, regulations and laws – and to write, implement and enforce policies which reflect these. For example, take the words of Joe M – founder and CEO of Wood Working Land.

“Human resources is essential for employment law compliance,” he says. “They keep track of changes in employment laws and ensure that they are followed. Tax rules, health insurance provisions, overtime laws, unemployment limits, and family and medical leave policies are a few examples.”

HR is the strategic link

Many organisations consider HR the link between strategic company growth, and front-line people management. After all, they often understand both sides of the equation – what the goals of the executive board are, as well as what the challenges of the key workers are.

When I asked Tanner Arnold, president & CEO of Revelation Machinery, “what do human resources do?”, I got a similar answer.

“The HR department is established to serve as a link between management and employees” explains Tanner. “A good HR manager understands both the needs of employees and management and provides an impartial approach to the company’s major problems.”

HR is the supportive human touch

For some organisations, finding a real human connection with the workforce is the most important HR responsibility of them all. This is certainly true for Tal Shelef, co-founder of Condo Wizard:

“HR’s role doesn’t stop with simply hiring and firing employees,” says Tal. “Human resources is responsible for the full support they can provide to the employees. They should spend their time working on tasks which concern the overall wellbeing of the employees, be it health and wellness, or simply supporting employee concerns.”

I’ve found this is often an overlooked element of HR, especially in more traditional organisations where HR has been seen as simply the cold face of recruitment and redundancy.

HR is a risk mitigator

HR’s familiarity with employment law, employee wellbeing, policy-making and strategic oversight, means that HR’s primary role often ends up being that of a risk mitigator. For example, HR must constantly keep businesses informed of risks and rules that are easily breached, even with the best of intentions.

For Jim Cichanksi, founder & CHRO of Flex HR, “HR is a vital backbone to every business” he says. “HR must be on top of constantly changing laws, while minimising risk and ensuring compliance. HR can help mitigate possible liability risks for employers.”

If you’re interested in helping your business mitigate HR risks, then you might be interested in the following article: Eight HR mistakes auditors keep finding.

HR is an expert in resourcing and logistics

Of course, beyond the human touch, the strategic link, the policymaking and the risk mitigation, HR is almost always required to be exceptionally good at resourcing and logistics. It’s in the name – of human resources.

While there are different approaches and opinions on how sensitive and supportive HR should be, the fact remains that this department continues to manage the human resource within an organisation.

“HR must talk to department heads about their various staffing needs” explains Shaun Price, Head of Customer Acquisition at MitoQ. “They supervise hiring for all of a company’s departments, and while every day in HR is different, many tasks remain the same across the board.”

Shaun specifically mentions hiring, onboarding, and identifying skill gaps as some of the main responsibilities for HR. The fact is, HR must be good at dealing with people, but also good at assessing organisational needs, and finding a way to meet those needs through appropriate resources – be those human or material.

A balanced perspective on HR

I recognise that HR means different things to different people. And that’s why you’ll notice I cover a lot of different topics on this blog.

I’ll often talk about the importance of good mental health, for example – after all, HR is often responsible for employee wellbeing. But I’ll also talk about policies and legislation, such as how long to keep employee records for.