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What’s in a name?

Why do people in certain specialties sometimes argue they aren’t ‘in HR?’

By Brian Kreissl

Specialists in a few areas of what we might refer to as human resources management sometimes argue they aren't even part of the HR profession — even if they do happen to fall under the HR function in many cases.

Payroll is one thing, which really isn’t part of HR in spite of the obvious overlap. But specialists in training and development, employee communications, organizational development, labour relations, occupational health and safety — and sometimes even recruitment and compensation — frequently argue they aren’t HR professionals.

Indeed, many of those disciplines don’t fall under the human resources function in some organizations. Especially in an organization with a hybrid or matrix structure, there may be people in the line who perform what many would consider to be HR functions (sales trainers might be an example). And those people frequently aren’t HR practitioners by profession and don’t want to be associated with HR.

The image of the ‘touchy-feely’ HR practitioner

Part of that might be due to an image problem in the HR profession – particularly the persistent stereotype of the “touchy-feely” HR professional.

People who gravitate to some of the more “concrete,” technical or quantitative aspects of HR are sometimes loath to consider themselves HR practitioners in the true sense of the word.

For example, when I worked in an in-house recruitment department within a large financial institution, one of my bosses at the time, like me, had come from an agency environment. But, while I saw recruitment as a stepping stone to more of a generalist type HR role and definitely considered myself to be an HR practitioner, she was a career recruiter and argued with me that, as recruiters, we weren’t really HR.

I also worked pretty closely with a corporate communications specialist in that same company who really didn’t see herself as an HR professional in spite of the fact she reported directly to a senior HR business partner and probably most of her work dealt with employee communications.

Training and organizational development

Although the training and development function in most organizations falls under the umbrella of HR, not all trainers consider themselves to belong to the HR profession as such. While many trainers are HR practitioners, some have teaching backgrounds or have pure corporate training/facilitation backgrounds. And many training and development specialists have professional or vocational backgrounds in their areas of expertise.

I recently read an article by organizational development (OD) consultant Matt Minahan that argued OD as a discipline doesn’t belong within the HR function. Minahan believes HR is more or less a compliance function (although he admits HR is becoming increasingly strategic and business-savvy), while OD is all about organizational effectiveness. He believes when HR practitioners do OD there’s a conflict of interest because HR is more about enforcement and control, and practitioners have a difficult time being impartial, for example, when they find out about dysfunctional behaviours among managers.

I personally believe HR can do compliance, strategy and culture well, although admittedly that isn’t the case in every organization. And it doesn’t have to necessarily mean every individual HR practitioner has to be good at all three. However, Minahan makes a valid point, which can be applied to any specialist function within HR, since such specialties can often become stifled within the confines of a corporate HR department.

Different professional backgrounds

While many of these practitioners obviously don’t want to be associated with HR, I don’t believe all of that necessarily stems from disliking or distrusting HR. Much of how we approach our jobs depends on our education and professional backgrounds, and I think the desire not to be lumped in with HR often simply relates to one’s own education, experience and career ambitions — which may differ from that of the average HR practitioner.

Even the same job can often be done by people with different professional backgrounds. For example, my job could easily be done either by an employment lawyer or an HR practitioner.

For HR professionals — particularly those with generalist backgrounds — it’s important to understand not everyone has had the same type of career background or education. And where one or two “grey areas” in terms of what could properly be referred to as human resources management fall under the mandate of the chief human resources officer (CHRO), it’s important to be respectful and understand different perspectives and paradigms brought to the table by people in those disciplines.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit   

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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