The Role of Human Resources

10 min. read

HR is the hub and central nervous system of a company’s staff, and you could rightly assume that this is where culture is more important than ever.


Finding an adequate definition for Human Resources is not as easy as you might think. Webster’s Dictionary simply defines it as (a) Personnel, and (b) The division of an organization concerned with personnel.

That hardly covers the wide and important role of HR. I suppose if you broke up the words and defined each, it might be helpful. Human — people. Resources — computable wealth; a source of information or expertise; something to which one has recourse in difficulty.

That brings things a little more into focus, doesn’t it? One could surmise that the meaning and role of HR is then the area that takes care of a company’s people, treats them as the valuable commodity that they are (wealth), offers them information and expertise, as well as providing a place they can turn to in times of difficulty.

Falling under this umbrella term of Human Resource Management are a number of functions. Recruiting and staffing, compensation and benefits, training and learning, labor and employee relations, and organization development.

To put it in context — HR is the hub and central nervous system of a company’s staff, and you could therefore rightly assume that this is where culture is more important than ever.

This is the department that helps, hires, fires, pays, trains, resolves conflicts, and so on. This is the area that deals with payroll, health insurance, employee discipline and staff recruitment. It’s where employees go when they’re having trouble. This is where a company’s culture needs to be well understood and practiced, as it deals directly with the foundation of that culture — its people — on a daily basis.

An entire book could be written (and many have been written by professionals more experienced in this area) but it's important to understand its practical application in the creating and nurturing of an amazing workplace. It's also a key area to wrap your head around for any new hires in the workforce, so that they can understand the responsibilities and dynamics of this vital department, as well as for executives who should have a good grasp on the nuances of this area.

A brief history of HR

The most likely origin story of modern human resources is the work of two men, Charles Babbage and Robert Owen, who came up with the idea during the industrial revolution. The idea was simple — that the wellbeing of the worker was crucial to productivity and the success of the organization.

Early versions of the idea were implemented as “industrial welfare,” “personnel management” and studies of fields like organization management and industrial psychology contributed to the building of this essential subject.

The term Human Resources was first coined in the 1960s when the value of labor relations began to rise more into the public eye, and when concepts like motivation, organizational behavior, and selection assessments began to take shape in all types of work settings.

So from the industrial revolution, to the post-war sixties, all the way up until today, Human Resources has acknowledged the importance of taking care of one’s employees.

HR in a hybrid workplace

Let's take a look at how executives and HR can work together to enhance and support their own company culture, while at the same time looking out for the wellbeing of the valued professionals in their care and improving the lives of all.

More than ever, HR departments and managers are faced with an interesting and challenging set of circumstances, with more and more employees now working from home. A human resources department is responsible for creating administrative procedures to support employees. And with the hybrid workplace becoming a new landscape that we navigate, it is now a team effort on the part of executives and human resource managers to ensure the wellbeing of staff, even when they’re not physically in the office.

Pre-pandemic, the number of people working from home was around 17 percent. That figure now sits somewhere over 70 percent. It would be foolhardy to ignore this obvious need to adapt. A hybrid office won’t just happen on its own. It requires the skill, care and efforts of an HR leader to bring it off successfully. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some essential steps for creating a hybrid workplace model that works for both the company and employees.

An HR leader should make decisions and recommendations to executives, taking into account input from employees. The goal, after all, is to create a positive work environment that allows staff to do their best work and also to improve the company.

Communication is key here. By asking employees how many days they’d like to work from home/the office, and which of an employee’s tasks they feel they can perform in each space; it’ll give a more realistic idea as to a workable solution for each employee.

Some employees may not be able to, or may not be ready to work from home (for instance, a new recruit or a newly promoted employee) and onsite work may be the best solution for them, even if temporarily. Tracking productivity is really important too so that you can potentially step in and help address any challenges or difficulties they’re facing when productivity dips.

Of top-level importance though, is your company’s culture, and how it impacts employee retention, growth, and bottom-line, so it’s critical to keep it strong. The office may still be the foundation of a company’s culture, but it’ll need extra support if that culture is to exist across multiple spaces. By integrating an employee portal or team collaboration software, an HR leader can share company announcements, post onsite and online events, and connect with the company’s employees virtually with the click of a mouse.

HR and Hiring

Hiring employees is usually the job of the hiring manager, but it is done in concert with the human resources department, as they usually sort through applicants to find the best candidates for the hiring manager.

As suitable applications are identified, they’re forwarded to the hiring manager for a closer look. Once the hiring manager has made their decision on who they want to interview, they then contact human resources to set up the interview.

Part of an HR representative’s job is to write job descriptions to match the qualifications for open positions. This is worth mentioning here as it really is something that is sorely lacking in the corporate world.

A word to the wise regarding job descriptions: Don’t leave position descriptions open for interpretation. You’ll be wasting everyone’s time. Detail out the specifics — duties, tasks, responsibilities and deliverables, etc. You need to know exactly what will be required of a person in this position on a daily basis. That’s the only way it can be clearly communicated to anyone who hopes to get hired and hold that position successfully.

Don’t get lazy and write some generic description like “Must be proficient in Microsoft. Must work well in teams.” And we've all seen a thousand job listings with less imagination even than that. The more detailed you are from the get-go, the better your chances of finding that great candidate who will do an awesome job for the company.

Attend job fairs to meet potential candidates. Get yourself out there and accept resumes or give out business cards and discuss what positions are currently open at the company. If you only fish in one pool, you’ll only reel in one kind of fish. Here’s where diversity and inclusion enters.

HR and Firing

With regards to firing, there’s a right way, and a million wrong ways. So let’s (briefly) go over the right way. First of all, get to the point. “Chad, have a seat. I have some bad news for you. As of today your employment has been terminated.”

Skip the small talk. Rip off the band-aid. Would you rather get one shot to the head, or ten to the legs? Ok that’s maybe an extreme comparison, but you get the idea. Also notice that it was phrased “has been terminated” and not “will be terminated” or some other future indication of an event. It’s already happened. You’re just delivering the bad news.

Avoid getting into empathetic back-and-forths — you don’t understand how they feel, so don’t pretend that you do. Keep some kleenex handy just in case they need it. And don’t get into the “you should’ve seen this coming” conversation either. They’ll be fine. Let them take their time to process it, and listen to what they have to say. They might run the gamut of shock, disbelief, anger and grief — just listen.

And here’s a big one — be as specific as possible about what happens next: pay, benefits, unused vacation time, references and letters of recommendation, job placement, explanations to coworkers, ongoing projects, etc. This is one time when you don’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Have all your answers ready to go. You’re pulling the rug out from someone, and you need to be able to put their feet back on solid ground as quickly and as compassionately as possible. You’ve just delivered some pretty hefty news that their current idea of their own future has been dismantled in a loss of employment. Now you have the opportunity to help them start building up a new idea of a different future for themselves.

No matter what happens in that room, stay calm, stay well-mannered and gracious, and be kind. They’ll be fine. Let me repeat that. They’ll be fine. They will bounce back. Don’t get pulled into some projected sympathy. At the same time, don’t be cold and robot-like either. There’s a fine line in between, and you need to be able to walk that tightrope gracefully.

Perks and benefits

This category includes health insurance, retirement accounts, health care flexible spending accounts, vacation time, sick leave, family leave and any other benefits or perks an employer offers. A good benefits package helps an employer attract and retain talent, so as a company it’s important to be generous in this area. That also means HR has to know the different types of benefit programs, what insurance company offers the best benefits (at the right cost) in addition to ensuring the plans are compliant with federal laws. Human resources holds enrollment meetings for employees regarding their benefits, as well as making sure they are up to date on their plans for the following year.

HR and Pay

Human resources is usually the point of contact when it comes to how much someone will be paid, performance bonuses, raises, and if someone is salaried or hourly. To that extent, they make sure that the payroll department has all the relevant information to pay employees the correct amount, if and when vacation pay is due, when a sick day was taken and if a bonus has been issued.

HR needs to stay on top of the current competitive wage for a position, if the organization can afford to offer that amount and what benefits can be offered to balance a lower pay rate if the company can’t meet the competitive wage. This is done as part of compiling a benefits package that’s offered to a candidate — all while maintaining the salary structure for employees through all levels of the organization.

HR and Unions

Human resources is bound to its own procedures whether or not their employees are in a union. For union employers, human resources needs to be proficient in collective bargaining practices while non-union employers may have contracts for employees who are considered subcontractors.

In either case, it falls to HR to draw up the contracts (or coordinate with legal department for contracts), negotiate details, know what the company can offer in terms of compensation and understand what the employees are seeking in terms of benefits. Human resources professionals must also keep up with changes in laws, employee needs and compensation trends.

HR and Legal

Federal and state laws are in place that say how many hours employees can work, govern how an employee can be terminated, anti-discrimination protections and how much unpaid time an employee can take for family leave. Thus, an employer must work within the confines of the law to respect and observe these laws at all times. It’s always better to give more than is required by law if you can, since those laws are usually written as bare minimum decent treatment of employees, and people should be treated better than the bare minimum.

Working conditions

On top of all the other areas that human resources employees are responsible for, ensuring a safe working environment in the company is another one. There should be an open-door policy when it comes to this so that any and all difficulties and concerns can be addressed swiftly. Working conditions are a major part of determining the reputation of the organization and if customers will buy from them. Ask yourself, would you want to buy a product from a company if you knew that it had awful working conditions for employees? Probably not.

HR professionals are tasked with taking inventory as to what needs upgrading in the building and what systems can assist in increasing the productivity of the company as a whole. This can then be run up the pole for budget consideration and implementation by management.

Mentoring and training

Professional development programs are a wonderful way to help employees succeed in their careers. By taking an aggressive approach to diversity hiring, coupled with mentoring and training programs, you can discover some incredible talent. Depending on your resources, you might hold recruiting fairs in underserved communities and hire people who have never worked before. These hires can be placed in entry level positions and given the training necessary to succeed at the job. You might also offer the opportunity to get a two-year Associate's Degree paid for by the company.

Another target-rich area for successful recruitment is a program for veterans. These are dedicated and extremely competent individuals, but a military career doesn't always translate to a civilian job. These employees can be given the opportunity to transition to a new career with your help.

You might also consider a program specifically designed for people who want to change careers but need new skills to do so. For example, a trucker might want to change careers but lacks the skills or training to do so — with your help they now have the opportunity to change career paths.

Creating initiatives in the community to help people make a transition and improve their lives is a worthy endeavor. You might just find a future Vice President in the most unlikely of places. That's not to suggest that you do this as charity, because there is a definite, obvious and tangible benefit for your business, but helping someone on a journey to a better life is extremely rewarding. It also happens to contribute to an amazing place to work.