What is HR?


The kind of one liner explanation or definition of HR that you’re likely to encounter is something like this “Human Resources is an umbrella term for a collection of functions that assist an organisation deliver value through its employees, contractors and agency staff”. However the way I view and define Human Resources is as a lifecycle – I recall quite vividly presenting ‘what is HR’ as a lifecycle (actually of a butterfly) to a group of quite senior colleagues at the time, and receiving some confused looked. However, stay with me on this one, and just like that group of colleagues, I promise you’ll walk away with a functional and useful understanding of what Human Resources is about.

The approach I’ve taken in explaining what HR does, is to follow an employee through being attracted to a role/organisation, day one on the job, their day to day interactions with HR, and then finally leaving the organisation. In other articles I focus more on the HR side, however in this explanation I’ve looked at HR through the eyes of the employee.

Attracting new employees
As a potential employee, we start off by looking for an organisation that not only meets our financial needs, but also our intellectual and social needs, and aligns with our values. Organisations are aware of this, and indeed they want to find employees who share or align with their own organisational values etc. The role that HR has in this space is the delivery of something called an Employee Value Proposition (EVP). The EVP sets out what the organisation is happy to make available to you, it comprises both the remuneration (salary, wages) that you will receive, and the benefits, that you can access as an employee.

In creating/supplementing the EVP, the HR function will come up with a list of benefits, which align with the wider values of the organisation. They then whittle those down to ones that are both affordable and would be seen as attractive to the largest proportion of the workforce the organisation wants to attract. Some examples of aspects of these EVP benefits that I’ve encountered include funds for training that each employee can apply for, maternity or paternity leave over and above the legislative minimum, availability of funding for conference attendance, discounts on the products of the employer, security guard escorts to your car or train station after hours.

The EVP is a very powerful tool that HR holds to attract employees. One organisation I worked with provided a security guard escorts to your car or train station after hours, I am never going to use this benefit – I typically work during daylight hours. However, I am interested in working for organisations which care about the safety of their employees. When this came up in conversation with this employer, it gave me insight into their culture, which resonated with my own values and wants from an employer.

So HR has a tool through the EVP to attract applicants, HR also has duties within the recruitment and selection space. The recruitment function will either sit within the HR team, or HR will manage the relationship between the organisation and the external recruitment firm it has engaged. Often it’s a combination of both, some easy to fill roles will be recruited by HR, while specialist or very senior roles will be handled by an external recruitment firm. When HR is doing the recruiting they will support the hiring manager in composing the job advertisement, and also assist in determining which channels they will use to advertise the role (local or national newspaper, job sites, social media, specialist journals etc). The applications received typically go through to the hiring manager to vet, sometimes HR will also assist on this aspect if they’re asked to. Once at the selection phase it really depends on the organisation the role that HR has to play. Sometimes HR will offer interview training for managers, sometimes someone from HR will sit in on the interview, other times it can be left completely with the hiring manager. Once the hiring decision is made, HR will typically have a part to play on the administration side, they’ll send out the contract, they’ll receive the signed contract back, and have the new employee setup in the payroll system. The issuing of security cards and/or IT access isn’t done within HR, however by HR entering the details of the new employee into the payroll system, it triggers these other aspects to happen.

Sometimes potential employees will ask for a higher salary. The role that HR plays in this is typically about providing guidance to the hiring manager. HR might provide a salary range that the manager can offer, or they might ask the manager to justify why they want to offer this candidate a higher amount. In these cases HR and the hiring manager will have a conversation about the best way forward, and one that takes internal equity and performance expectations into account.

Day one for the new employee
Most of us will recall the orientation that as new employees we went through, the orientation is created and run by your Human Resources team. They will take their cues from senior management (the Board and CEO), and will assemble a presentation or plan which is designed to get new employees up to speed as quickly as possible. Often times the orientation will place more focus on the culture and expectations of your employer, and much less on the technical side of your employment. For example it might include a section on the history of the organisation, an executive may deliver a 15 minute presentation on the organisation or their section in the organisation, or it may include a visit to one of the coal face areas of the business (a plant, retail store, depot, or call centre etc).


The day to day life of an employee
The vast majority of employees have very little if any face to face interaction with HR, potentially only seeing an HR Practitioner during a presentation or other such group event. What employees will do however is interact with the policies and procedures that HR have ownership over. If you’re ever applied for any type of leave, or some training, filled out a timesheet, quit a job, filled out an engagement survey, received a pay increase, or been fired, then you’re interacted with an policy or procedure that HR owns and maintains. Where HR Practitioners do spend a lot of face to face time with employees and their managers is around managing poor performance and change management. In the case of a poor performing employee, HR will discuss the issues with the manager and come up with a plan, they’ll often be in the meetings with the poor performing employee, and will monitor the progress of the employee until they either perform well or are exited from the organisation. The other area where HR Practitioners spend quite a bit of face to face time is around change, this might be restructuring an area, outsourcing a function, redundancy situations. Change is often upsetting, so the role of HR is to address questions and ensure that as little disruption as possible is experienced by the business and the employees.

Leaving the organisation
In most cases when an employee leaves the organisation, the only interaction they will have with HR is answer an exit survey. On the very rare occasion, HR might be engaged by the manager of the exiting employee to come up with a counter offer to retain the employee. I’ve been on the sidelines of a couple of counter offer situations through my roles in remuneration. They are rare in part because most of us are fairly easy to replace, and secondly they don’t often work. They can certainly retain the employee for a small period of time, but from my observations and discussions with colleagues, that same employee will usually leave within a few months.

I’ve briefly touched on many topics in the above explanation of what HR does, and I hope you’ve found it useful and its provided some insight into what HR Practitioners do. If you’re interested in understanding aspects of HR in greater detail, please do have a look around the site.

All the very best