I am constantly surprised when people I talk to do not appear to know what Human Resources (HR) is there for. OK, I am biased. Having been in HR all my working life, I think it’s obvious, but many people, it seems, do not!

A colleague recently mentioned that he had been talking to his 17 year-old son about potential career options – and had been explaining what he and his wife – both HR professionals – only to be met by a blank face and ‘No thank you, Dad’.

And there are many who have nothing positive whatsoever to say about what HR does those people in ‘Human Remains’ just seem to (1) get in the way, (2) stop things happening or (3) do nothing at all! And there are so many of them – what on earth do they do?

So what is HR for? 

People matter – to quote Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’ what makes a good company a great one “first who… then what”. Employing the right people is critical to business success and often THE source of competitive advantage.

HR is a source of expertise on people issues in a business; it is there to formulate policy and practice on people issues, to advise on the people aspects of organisational change and to take a ‘people perspective’ identifying solutions to address the challenges the business faces. The closer the relationship that HR has with the top leadership team the more likely that HR is translating the business goals and values into practical policies and actions and then communicating them across the organisation so that everyone understands what the impact is for them.

Most of this is common sense and many managers can and do manage their people effectively without support from HR…except when things go wrong.

HR should be adept at keeping managers and the organisation out of employment tribunals (but not at any price!).

In my experience many organisations don’t communicate the role and purpose of their HR function effectively, probably because it has evolved or been there without much forethought. This makes life difficult for HR practitioners because everyone has their own view or model of what HR is there for based on their own experience or what they’ve heard from others.

Most of us accept that we don’t know much about other functions, like Finance and Legal. So we would rather seek advice from an expert instead of finding ourselves in hot water. But everyone thinks they know how to deal with people. So clarifying what HR is there for has advantages for everyone in the business.
Firstly, there is the basic but important stuff – the tools to manage and pay people – starters and leavers, recruitment processes, changes that impact on pay – anyone can do that and frequently do (although sadly, far too many HR departments spend most of their time and effort on this).

In small businesses, the CEO’s PA or Office Manager often takes on this role – which is mainly administrative or transactional – preparing contracts of employment or dealing with payroll matters. This is the entry route for many people making HR their career. In larger organisations, transactional issues do not need to be the domain of the HR practitioner and this has led to the implementation of shared services in many large, complex organisations. There is no seat for HR on the board when HR has their primary focus on the nitty gritty. This does not mean that HR transactions are not important – they are. And paying people the correct amount each month is what each and every one of us should expect. It therefore goes unrecognised – until things go wrong

In some businesses, HR treads the fine line between employee ‘champion’ and strategic partner. In this situation, HR practitioners can find themselves in tricky situations where both the employee and the manager believe that HR is supporting them. This can lead to situations where HR is ‘scapegoated’ and neither party is satisfied with the outcome. This is perhaps where the label ‘Human Remains’ originated.

So organisations need to invest in skilling up managers to manage their people effectively – after all it is the manager’s primary role to deliver their business or service through the team of people that work for them; to help them develop an understanding of when to deal effectively with people issues (the earlier the better!) and most importantly when to call on HR for advice and support.

It might sound strange advice from an HR professional, but keep your HR service as small as possible. Like all experts, HR is not there to do the job for you, but to support the organisation and its managers to get the best from the people working there. All too often we in HR make this too difficult and complex, instead of providing simple, user-friendly help and support.

And the role of line managers?

It is the role of managers to lead and manage their people on a day-to-day basis ie. recruit, support, communicate, give and seek feedback, manage performance. Patrick Lencioni, an expert in leadership, says that managing people is one of the most significant things we can do at work. It touches every area of an employee’s life so it is important to do it well. He says that managers affect lives more than they will ever know. This means that managers need training and support to understand the responsibilities of their role in relation to engaging and managing their people. Managers also need a sounding board and sometimes professional advice when they encounter situations they have not dealt with before or experience rarely, like disciplinary issues, handling long-term sickness absence or redundancy.

So who can employees turn to when they need advice?

Their first port of call is their line manager. And in many organisations, employees have the support of trade unions or employee representatives when they are looking for advice, support or representation.

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Hilary Jeanes is Director of PurpleLine Consulting Limited, a consultancy which helps organisations realise the potential of their people.

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