October 7, 2019

What Does HR Actually Do? The Misunderstood Strengths and Weaknesses of HR Pros


HR often gets a bad rap. Sure, we’re there to walk employees through their first days and lend an ear in tough times, but we also bear responsibility for giving bad news, breaking harsh truths, and enforcing change management. It can be a rewarding and gratifying career, but it’s not for everyone.

Even pop culture can’t help but take potshots at HR. Think about The Office: Who always got the short end of the stick? Toby from HR.

Toby is openly disliked by the boss and barely tolerated by his coworkers — but why? How did HR get such a downer of a reputation? In an increasingly competitive business world where talent is one of the few differentiators left, why are the folks entrusted with hiring, managing, training, and engaging that talent considered less important than other disciplines?

In part, it does appear that HR may fall short in terms of effectiveness: One study found HR leaders are, on average, 6 percentile points less effective than the leaders of other functions. But is this inherent to HR, or is it a matter of business priorities? Korn Ferry reports that 47 percent of organizations do not offer HR-specific leadership development programs, which may help explain the low average effectiveness.

HR History in a Nutshell

To understand the odd position HR currently occupies in the business landscape, we first have to look to the field’s past.

As Marketplace reports, in the early 1900s, companies were worried about they’re still worried about today: retaining employees and improving performance. While many employees at this time were turning to unions to help get their needs met, HR departments arose largely as a way for companies to address employee concerns without unionization.

“By the 1930s, human resources started to become and be seen as advocates for employees and the reason for that, frankly, was because companies were trying to keep unions out,” Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli told Marketplace. “The idea of being able to tell people at the top of the company: ‘Hey, the workers are unhappy about this’ really mattered because they cared whether workers were unhappy because they thought they might unionize otherwise. In that period, HR developed this kind of reputation as being the workers’ advocate and that’s probably true up to 1970.”

In the ’80s, union membership — and, concurrently, union power — began to decline. As a result, HR’s role started to shift. Rather than the protector of employees, the department became more like the defender of the company, tasked with enforcing compliance to keep the organization out of legal trouble.

Today, HR leaders find themselves struggling to straddle the gap between their two historical roles of employee guide and company compliance officer. This tricky balancing act can lead to both sets of HR’s customers — the company and its employees — feeling dissatisfied with the department.

But some HR pros are better at the task than others. Why is that? In large part, it has to do with the varying strengths and weaknesses of HR leaders. Below, we’ll examine some of the common traits great HR leaders have, with the hope of crafting a basic outline of what makes for the most effective HR pros:

Common Strengths of Successful HR Leaders

1. They Prioritize Learning and Development

Those who work in HR generally end up in the field because of a genuine interest in helping others succeed, and that is reflected in the responsibilities they take on.

Great HR leaders value learning, for both themselves and their employees. They join professional associations, attend conferences, take classes, and read books — and they encourage employees to do the same. Mentoring, coaching, and training initiatives more often than not begin on the desks of HR reps. Additionally, HR leaders are often the first people to establish contact with new employees, and they play an important part in ensuring those hires successfully integrate into their roles.

2. They Advocate for Employees

The HR department was built to bridge the gap between the employer and the employee. While the field has changed over the years, great HR leaders know this function still accounts for a large share of their job responsibilities. A great HR leader understands that advocating for employees — whether in the form of more autonomy, better compensation, or a safer working environment — is an investment in both the employees and the company.

When a worker has an issue with coworkers, leadership, or employment terms, HR can offer guidance and advice. Executives benefit from HR’s advocacy role, too: When a major business decision is made, it is HR who will communicate the change and navigate any backlash.

3. They Understand Compliance

Employment law is dense with rules and nuances, and the HR team is the knowledgeable resource executives can lean on to ensure the organization is complying with relevant regulations on the local and national levels. Workplace legislation is constantly changing and varies widely by location, one recent example being the new anti-harassment training laws going into effect in New York City and other locales. Great HR leaders stay on top of these changes to keep their companies out of hot water.

Common HR Weaknesses

1. They Ignore the Financial Aspect

A survey of more than 400 senior-level HR and finance executives found that collaboration between the departments is nowhere near where it should be. For example, when it came to compliance with the Affordable Care Act — a serious concern for both departments — 33 percent of financial leaders predicted HR would go over budget.

The survey results point to a common negative perception of the HR department’s work that goes back to the old idea of HR as a cost center rather than a revenue generator. While this is technically accurate on many levels, it also ignores one crucial fact: Talent is truly the key differentiator for most organizations across industries today.

That said, HR leaders would do well to better understand how their work impacts the company’s bottom line. Yes, you have to spend money to hire, retain, and engage productive employees, but the efficient use of funds is key to the health of the business.

As Stark HR’s Cristine Sauter puts it, “While finance views HR as an unnecessary cost, HR thinks finance is out to squeeze every penny they can find. Bottom line is both departments function as gears powering a larger machine. Individually, each department provides services to the company, many of which overlap. When HR and finance function cooperatively the company moves into a new era of efficiency, production, customer satisfaction, and most importantly, profit.”

2. They Lack a Strategic Foundation

HR is absolutely a strategic function — but its duties are rarely couched in strategic terms. For example, discussions around how to hire better talent or manage top performers are often disconnected from the overall business strategy, despite the fact that talent is a major driver of successful execution.

Whether you agree or disagree that the HR function lacks business acumen, the fact is HR can benefit from more collaboration with the organization’s operations teams. Implementation of a data-driven approach to HR is an important step in making the connection: Data informs better strategy within HR and also speaks a common language throughout departments, especially operations.

As HR and people management become even more central to a company’s success, the members of these teams need to look at their various responsibilities through a strategic lens. While the talent acquisition portion of the HR function has by and large started to do this, HR leaders should be looking to expand that lens beyond hiring. HR leaders are very often in charge of change management. Whether it’s educating employees on new company goals, rolling out a new health plan, or adding a new policy to the employee handbook, change can only be effective if it is made strategically.

3. They Are Less Customer-Focused

HR professionals have two audiences to please: the employer and the employees. At times, trying to make them both happy is very difficult. The task only becomes more burdensome when HR is accused of not caring enough about customers (for those counting, that’s a third audience).

It’s no wonder that HR sometimes comes across as being very internally focused. HR’s KPIs often revolve around metrics like time to hire, retention, and productivity. These KPIs may drive results that look great on reports but make little if any impression on external audiences (e.g., customers). HR leaders may be focused on employee productivity, but they aren’t necessarily considering the needs of the customers who are directly affected by internal adjustments to talent management.

However, this is changing. As more and more HR departments prioritize employer branding and come to understand candidates as a kind of customer, more HR pros are learning to connect their internal activities to the external environment.

Great HR leaders are not born, they are made from years of practice, training, and dedication. Despite the department’s less than stellar reputation, without the strengths HR brings to the table, organizations would suffer.

Which is not to say the department is perfect: It has many shortcomings it could stand to address. By investing further in HR’s strengths and taking steps to improve upon its weaknesses, HR pros and the organizations they serve can better position themselves for long-term success.

A version of this article originally appeared on the ClearCompany blog.

Sara Pollock is head of the marketing department at ClearCompany.

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As head of the marketing department, Sara makes sure that ClearCompany's message, products, and best practices reach and assist as many HR practitioners as possible.