Every organization needs some type of HR function

Even startups are beginning to recognize the value of human resources

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl 

I just read an interesting article from Fast Company about how many startups are beginning to realize they need some type of HR function. While software tools and outsourced services can provide some help, putting a human face to a company's HR department helps provide context, sets the tone with respect to organizational culture and appropriate behaviour in the workplace, supports diversity and inclusion and acts as a resource for managers and employees.  

The article, by Cale Guthrie Weissman, entitled “The Future of HR and Why Startups Shouldn’t Reject It,” argues‎ HR was long thought of as unnecessary and overly bureaucratic by the founders of startups. In particular, HR was seen as adding a layer of corporate bureaucracy not needed in smaller companies whose founders deliberately sought to do away with the encumbrances of larger organizations. 

This is somewhat ironic given that the same magazine published an article entitled “Why We Hate HR” back in 2005. That particular article spawned a great deal of debate and navel-gazing among HR practitioners and other business professionals about the value of the HR function in organizations. 

People still refer to, debate about and comment on that article 11 years later. Indeed, Weissman acknowledged that particular piece about HR’s alleged shortcomings in his article. 

Interestingly enough, Weissman didn’t try to distance himself from the earlier article by Keith Hammonds or argue a different perspective. However, I didn’t get the feeling he would entirely agree with some of the criticisms levelled at HR back in 2005. But that isn’t surprising given that magazines and newspapers publish contradictory opinion pieces all the time. 

Nevertheless, Weissman’s article could be evidence of a movement in the business community towards recognizing the value of the HR function. Senior business leaders are increasingly beginning to understand the importance of the people side of the business, and many people now understand HR isn’t a touchy-feely function that doesn’t understand “the business,” a bastion of extreme political correctness or the “fun police” who worry endlessly about any trivial legal risk or liability that could potentially befall the organization. 

‘Rebranding’ the HR function 

But perhaps because of the existence of so many negative stereotypes relating to the HR profession, many smaller organizations and technology companies in particular are beginning to refer to their HR departments as something other than human resources. Examples of these new monikers include people and culture, people operations, employee support and human capital management. 

While part of this “rebranding exercise” is surely a result of negative attitudes towards the human resources function, some of it also relates to the changing nature of HR departments within organizations. As many of the more transactional activities within HR are automated, outsourced or delegated to managers and employees themselves, with the help of HR self-service tools, HR becomes the manager of the company’s talent, the custodian of organizational culture and the corporate strategist relating to the organization’s people. 

However, as one blog post by Robin Schooling argues, there’s no point in rebranding a company’s HR department if the function isn’t willing to make significant changes to how it operates or its basic philosophy. Schooling recommends that whatever HR calls itself, there needs to be a focus on being “human,” aligning employees with the organization’s goals and improving experiences for employees and job candidates. 

I laugh when organizations announce they’re doing away with their HR departments only to find they’ve just began calling the HR function something else or have reallocated its responsibilities elsewhere. Whatever the function is called, they haven’t really done away with HR; someone still has to recruit, onboard, train, pay, incent, motivate and terminate employees. 

Back in 2011, I blogged about how in many smaller organizations, non-HR practitioners are often responsible for the work typically performed by the HR function. Such individuals include owner/managers, financial controllers, office managers and administrative assistants. But no matter who is doing the work or what it’s called, every organization needs some type of HR function.

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