The Ivory Tower

It’s not surprising that the vast majority of employees do not know what Human Resources (HR) ‘does’. For many, the only time they see HR is when they start, when something goes wrong and when they leave.

HR is often perceived as being in an ‘ivory tower’ detached from the reality of the workforce on the ground. This perception couldn’t be further from the truth - if it involves people, it involves HR. So, what goes on behind those closed doors?

Opening Doors

If you want an umbrella phrase to describe HR then it could be ‘dealing with the whole employee lifecycle from before recruitment to beyond termination’. But that doesn’t capture the essence of what HR does. Splitting HR functions into ‘operational’ and ‘strategic’ will give you more of an insight, but as we will see later, this also fails to recognise the bigger impact of effective and modern HR management.

Operational or ‘transactional’ HR

This refers to the administrative and operational processes - the day to day tasks that are necessary to meet employees needs and maintain functionality. Transactional HR implements the objectives that enable your organisation to achieve its long-term goals. These processes can include: 

  • Protection: ensuring your organisation stays within the boundaries of employment law and best practice;
  • Procurement: planning, recruitment and selection and induction;
  • Development: training, coaching, career planning and performance management;
  • Benefits and Compensation: salary determination, payroll administration and employee benefits;
  • Maintenance: maintaining databases, contract preparation, providing the framework for policy and procedures and the tools to translate those policies into action, sustaining and improving working conditions, staff retention, employee communication, employee engagement and analysis and reporting;
  • Employee relations: for example, individual casework such as disciplinary, grievance, and capability.

Strategic or ‘transformational’ HR

This involves long term goal setting through delivering strategy and change. It means looking at the bigger picture of your business needs and your organisation’s growth as it relates to employees. For example, it could include working to review and develop employee’s expertise and develop programmes in order to increase employee productivity or it could include planning restructuring options.  The aim of strategic HR is to get you a return on your investment and help keep your organisation competitive and growing.

There is not always a clear line between operational and strategic. For example, training may fall into the operational category but has a strategic intent. Operational and strategic HR are intertwined and an in-effective operational function will hinder the strategic function and vice versa. In an ideal world, operational HR should function in the background whilst allowing strategic HR to move your organisation forward. However, the reality in most cases is that operational matters can take over, especially when things go wrong. This may be due to inefficient systems and processes or lack of resources (knowledge, financial or human) but when things go wrong they demand your immediate attention and time. Moreover, those matters ‘hold court’ until they are resolved. Equally, strategic objectives that are ill-thought out and in misalignment with your organisation’s objectives only serve to hinder the practicalities of the day-to-day operational functions.

The Wider Community

Modern HR, both operational and strategic, has an important role to play in the success of your business. It has an impact on how your organisation is viewed within your local community, the wider community and within your industry sector. Aside from the obvious, that HR works to keep you inside of the legal boundaries and outside of the employment tribunal, there is also your reputation to consider.

Your reputation is an essential element of your business remaining competitive and successful. Your reputation as an employer has an impact upon your reputation as a business. This starts as early as the recruitment process and continues after the employment relationship has ended.  From how you respond (or don’t respond!) to potential candidates to how your employees feel about you as an employer. Most of you will probably have contractual clauses or policies in place to protect yourselves from reputational damage whilst a person is in your employ (or for a short period after they have left). But what stops potential candidates who never heard back from you after applying for a job (or worse, interviewees who you never got back to) using social media platforms to air their views? This information is out there, it’s in the public domain for all, including your clients and your competitors, to read.  Similarly, there are various websites where ex-employees can post their views about their former employers and, whilst some comments may lack substance, mud sticks and its mud that is being thrown by your disgruntled ex-employees. There are many things that may have led to them feeling that way, such as lack of management skills, ineffective communication, unsatisfactory working systems and processes or a disagreeable company culture or ethos. Whilst HR is not a panacea, it does work towards alleviating these issues.

Businesses no longer view HR solely through an operational lens and see it only as a back-room function. Modern and forward-thinking organisations know that effective HR management opens the doors of the ivory towers and ventures into the wider community – protecting and growing businesses.