If someone told you that they were a doctor, you’d probably have at least a vague idea of what they did. Likewise if someone told you they were a gardener, or a taxi driver, or a high court judge. You might not be able to describe their day to day activities in any level of detail, but you could broadly outline the overriding objective of their role. ‘You make people better.’ ‘You plant things.’ ‘You decide who’s going to go to prison.’ Simplistic, but you get the idea.
When it comes to HR, however, I’ve discovered it’s not quite so easy. Respond to the classic dinner party ice breaker of ‘So, what do you do?’, and your reply of ‘I work in HR’ is likely to be met with at best vague recognition, at worst a totally blank stare. Turns out, while most of us have heard of the HR department, not many of us know what it actually does.
Even HR professionals aren’t entirely sure
As I’ve progressed through my career, what’s become increasingly apparent to me is that this isn’t a characteristic solely found in those working outside of the HR profession. There seem to be an alarming number of articles published and conversations taking place between HR professionals themselves asking the question: ‘So, what exactly is it that we do?’ Or, perhaps more accurately: ‘What should we be doing?’
A polarised profession
HR as a profession tends to be polarised. You are either perceived to be down at the ‘tea and tissues’ end of the scale, found ‘drowning in policies and procedures’ somewhere in the middle, or you are over at the ‘people are merely a resource who can be measured in numbers’ side of things. Little wonder, therefore, that someone starting out on their career as an HR practitioner can easily find themselves somewhat bemused as to what it is that they’re aiming for.
No one has ever sat me down and told me how to ‘do’ HR. Hopefully, somewhere along the way I have managed to work it out myself. And so here are my thoughts on what, as HR practitioners, we should be driving to deliver:
#1 Business Objectives
At risk of stating the blindingly obvious here, our number one priority should be exactly the same as everyone else’s within the business: we should be contributing to the delivery of the business objectives. Too often, HR is described as merely a support function. I disagree. An HR team which is really performing should be absolutely fundamental in delivering those business objectives. After all, we have responsibility for an organisation’s most important asset: its people. If we put the frameworks into place both to bring that people resource into the business, and to then enable it to deliver, it’s clear that we have one of the most important roles to play in ensuring those business goals are achieved.
#2 Employee Engagement
We know that engaged employees deliver better results. Employee engagement and the achievement of business objectives go hand in hand. It stands to reason, therefore, that a big part of our role should be focused on implementing mechanisms in order to drive engagement, measuring the success of these, and thereby driving results.
#3 Legislative Compliance
No, it’s never going to be the most dynamic part of our roles… but without ensuring we have the fundamentals in place we’re going to be wasting a whole heap of time which could be spent adding value in the other ‘buckets’ in this list on unnecessary and derailing ER issues, where the correct policies have not been followed or adhered to. HR should not be about a huge amount of red tape and endless pages of documentation which must be completed – but we do need to have our house in order to ensure we’re not creating obstacles, as opposed to removing them.
#4 A Stand Out Experience
Finally, we have a vital role in ensuring that the organisation within which we work is able to deliver a stand out experience for its employees, clients and other stakeholders. By focusing on this we are able to become an employer of choice, attract the best talent and consequently deliver a best in class service for our clients and stakeholders.
All becomes clear
When you identify those four focus areas for delivery… what we should be doing, as HR practitioners, to me then becomes absolutely clear. If we’re carrying out an activity which doesn’t directly contribute to one of the above, then we need to stop and ask the question why. If we’re spending all of our time in one area (Legislative Compliance, anyone?), then we’re depriving the organisation of the value we’re able to deliver in the other three areas, and we need to reprioritise accordingly.
And if we’re consistently delivering in all four areas, and are measuring and proving our success? It should then be blindingly clear, not just to us, but to the entire organisation, just what it is that ‘HR does’… and the value we have created as a result.