HR departments have been a part of large businesses for longer than any of us have been. Throughout that time, Human Resources personnel have often been placed at odds with other employees. But good HR policies ought to support employee experience and wellbeing. So, what is the purpose of human resources, and does it need to change?

What’s the purpose of HR in the modern workplace?

Obviously, the absolute bare-minimum purpose of human resources is to make sure that employers treat employees according to the standards of decency required by law. In an ideal world, this would mean that HR personnel would be champions of employee rights.

And it’s definitely very important to look at HR in terms of how they can support employees. But people in a lot of organisations feel pitted against HR. To some, the “Human” in “Human Resources” feels like a joke.

This can simply be down to their employers having a deeper knowledge of HR regulation than their employees. But, at the end of the day, they’re still the ones who employ HR personnel. If your employer doesn’t care about employee wellbeing, there’s only so much even the most sympathetic HR leader can do. So, the question we’re really asking is, what’s the purpose of HR when you actually break it down?

Is the language of human resources problematic?

It might seem odd to ask whether human resource language is dehumanizing when “Human” is literally in the name. But it’s the other word that concerns us. Resources are typically seen as something to be used up and thrown away. They are ultimately expendable.

It’s not the only example, either. Terms like “headcount” or “human capital” have similar issues. Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry Wehmiller, once asked a military general how they trained people to take lives. The general simply replied, ‘We don’t. We teach them to take out targets that make bad decisions.’

To this, Chapman observed, ‘The military uses language to dehumanize the taking of lives. We do the same thing in business.’

It may seem like a small distinction. But be careful that you don’t stop describing people as people. Otherwise, you make it much easier to view them as expendable cogs in a machine. Parts can be swapped out once they’re too worn.

Of course, that isn’t the actual view of anyone in business (it’s definitely the view of some we have met, mentioning no names…). But the connotation is still there. People don’t like being a commodity. And this can easily make them feel less important and far from your most important asset.

Does current HR language put too much emphasis on performance?

There’s no arguing with the fact that individual performance is the essential building block for organisational success. But, if we’ve learned anything, it’s the fact that other priorities like employee resilience and wellbeing are just as important. So, what purpose does the human resources team serve, and is it an accurate description for what these employees should be doing?

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve wondered whether HR has a brand issue. It’s possible that giving Human Resources departments a name that more accurately portrays their purpose as an employee support network. Some businesses have already reached this conclusion. As a result, many have chosen alternative department titles like “People Operations” or “Employee experience.” But we’re not here to suggest specific alternatives. It’s up to you to choose the most effective titles for your business.

Does this debate miss the mark about the purpose of HR?

We’re not going to waste your time quoting that one line from Romeo and Juliette (although we guarantee you just parroted it in your head!). But to be fair, it does raise an important question:

Does all this naming nonsense even matter in the first place? It’s true that language can alter our perceptions and preconceptions in all sorts of tiny ways. But, surely, it’s more important that the actions of your HR department should speak for themselves. That was a popular stance before the ’08 crash. One public sector HR director was quoted as saying, ‘Never has so much time and energy been wasted on such utter b******s.’

Vance Kearney, vice-president HR EMEA at Oracle, put it a bit more eloquently. But he still had some pretty harsh words of his own:

‘There’s too much focus on the name of the function rather than on the contribution and talent within the function. Worrying about titles if the fundamentals are wrong is like giving Quasimodo a “what not to wear” makeover.’

Blistering remarks aside, it’s hard to argue with the logic that more emphasis should be put on HR’s actual conduct than what their department name is. The world may have changed a lot. But it’s also true that, these days, discourse around HR is more preoccupied with changing their actual function.

So maybe a simple rebranding isn’t enough. Although, to be clear, if you can think of a job title that you believe will serve your organisation better, we say go for it!

Other ways to ensure HR is fit for purpose

If any part of that answer involved supporting your employees and helping them to flourish, then we have some final tips to help HR be the best it can be:

Educate employees on HR policy

Esoteric HR policy can be one of the biggest dividers between HR and other staff. Giving employees access to knowledge resources about employment law and company policy not only helps your personnel. It helps them to better understand HR decision-making, but it also helps them understand their rights as an employee. This means staff are better able to self-advocate and reap the benefits of a pro-active HR team.

Break down the walls between human resources and other employees

It’s a simple fact of life that, if you separate two groups, they’ll inevitably fall into an “Us versus Them” mentality. Employees need social connections to thrive. Giving HR staff opportunities to mingle with other employees is a way of supporting them that can help overcome the personnel versus HR mindset that might be pervasive in your company.

Give employees a voice

One reason that employees often grow resentful or disengaged is that they feel they aren’t being heard. Check in with employees on a regular basis, and gauge their sentiment about possible policy changes. After all, nobody likes being swept along for the ride. When people have the chance to contribute to these decisions, it’s more likely you’ll create HR policy everyone can be proud of.