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What’s in a name?

Different labels for HR functions cause confusion
human resources
Many organizations are rebranding their HR function to something other than human resources, such as people and culture or people operations. Shutterstock

By Brian Kreissl

I find it interesting how there are so many different disciplines within the HR function. Many of those disciplines overlap with one another and have different labels and terminology associated with them. 

I also believe there is considerable disagreement about which disciplines certain roles and accountabilities fall under. There are even some roles, tasks and responsibilities many argue aren’t even formally a part of the HR function or profession.

This includes things that are only tangentially related to HR such as payroll, employee communications, occupational health and safety and sometimes even facilities management. While some of those roles and tasks are outside the scope of the HR function in many organizations, in some companies they fall under HR — even where the people performing them don’t consider themselves to be HR professionals in any way. (Even some recruiters don’t think of themselves as HR practitioners, although many of them work in an agency environment.)

That’s simply because they have to fall somewhere and there is some relevance to the people side of the business in those functions. The other natural place for some of those departments to fall under is finance.

But when I am referring to the HR function in the broadest sense, I tend to prefer the term “workforce professionals.” That is more all-encompassing and includes payroll, occupational health and safety, labour relations and employee communications professionals, as well as employment lawyers.

Rebranding the HR function

Many organizations are even rebranding their HR function to something other than human resources, such as people and culture or people operations (generally something involving the word “people” in it). In spite of this trend — and regardless of who does what or how the department is structured — someone in those organizations is still performing the type of work normally associated with the HR function.

Some of the disciplines within HR that people sometimes argue aren’t a part of the HR profession include organizational development, learning and development and labour relations. Nevertheless, I actually find it more interesting to look at how those disciplines are defined in various organizations, who performs certain tasks and what each discipline encompasses.

For example, I once had a discussion with an HR professional who argued succession planning often falls under employee relations. Personally, I have never seen that. Talent management yes, but employee relations no.

Talent management to me is about how an organization strategically and holistically acquires, develops, deploys and manages its talent. It includes things like top talent reviews, succession planning and leadership development.

Talent management may also include talent acquisition and workforce planning. It could also include things like employer branding.

Employee relations, at least in a North American context, is generally about the legal and quasi-legal aspects of the employment relationship. While labour relations implies one or more unions are involved, employee relations is generally considered to be the non-union equivalent.

In most organizations, the employee relations function is generally concerned with things like conducting workplace investigations, researching and developing termination packages, developing employment policies and mediating employment-related disputes. Employee relations professionals may also represent the employer before tribunals and adjudicators, although that may be the responsibility of in-house counsel.

It also seems to me that some organizations take a more literal view of the term “employee relations” and include “softer” considerations relating to employee communications, retention and engagement under that umbrella. Somewhat confusingly, other organizations refer to their entire HR function as employee relations or use the term to refer to labour relations.

Dealing with grey areas

There are also some grey areas including things like employee wellness, rewards and recognition, occupational health and safety training and diversity and inclusion. By this, I mean it is unclear which function some of these tasks should fall under.

Where you have a small HR department with one or more HR generalists handling just about everything this isn’t so much of an issue. However, it becomes an issue with a large, sophisticated HR function with separate departments or teams staffed with specialists who deal with specific disciplines.

Clear accountabilities and responsibilities are required. Otherwise, there is overlap of responsibilities and lack of clarity regarding roles.

While organizations are entitled to structure their HR departments the way the want or refer to the HR function or various disciplines within it as they please, it seems like there is too much confusion around job titles and accountabilities in HR. A little more standardization might be helpful.

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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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