The real role of Human Resources is an open secret. Until you gain some political acumen, you are probably thinking about your HR department in the wrong light.
Early in a person's career, they will think of Human Resources as having two functions. The first is basically as a bureaucrat, someone to make sure all the paperwork gets completed and filed in the right place. The second function is as a complaint department. If your boss is doing something you don't like, or if somebody else is doing something you don't like and the boss won't fix it, you go to HR. Then, when HR listens politely but ultimately nothing changes, you get embittered. "HR isn't doing their jobs," you will think. This perspective is wrong, and the source of your bitterness is your own misunderstanding of HR, but we will get to that later.
New managers have similar misconceptions about Human Resources. They are on the other side of problems now. Just like employees, new managers assume that the purpose of HR is to help them with employee problems. The manager is trying to manage an employee with chronic issues, repeatedly going to HR for advice, trying their best to follow that advice. But, somehow, the problems are never quite bad enough for HR to let the manager fire the employee. This new boss's perspective is wrong in even more ways than the employee's above, but again, that's getting ahead of ourselves.
(Look at the irony, by the way. Both sides of an issue, the employee and the boss, think that HR is there to "deal with" the other party. Bosses, as employees themselves, really ought to recognize this logical impossibility and have the revelation that HR must not be there to serve them. But nobody seems to have that breakthough.)
Trying to learn about Human Resources through traditional means will only reinforce your misinformed viewpoint. Internet searches about the role of HR will give you webpages with titles like “The 7 Functions of HR” or “The 5 main areas of HR.” Those pages will all include some combination of the following: facilitate hiring, onboarding, and training; administer the performance appraisal process; ensure workforce engagement; payroll management; ensure compliance with laws and regulations; conduct disciplinary actions; maintain employee records; etc.
HR textbooks are the same. You'll get chapters on all of the above and on various legalities. However, the text only hints at the real purpose of HR, and only if you read between the lines. That is a list of activities HR does. That list is not HR's purpose.
Human Resources exists to minimize legal risk to the organization.
Whatever else they are doing, the underlying motivation will be to reduce the risk of a lawsuit. The main purpose of HR is not about helping the manager. The main purpose is not about helping the employee. It is not about developing the best, most effective workforce.
Many HR professionals would feel that this is reductive, that they care about a lot more than avoiding lawsuits. I am sure that is true for them on a personal level. Human Resource departments do indeed complete all the tasks listed above. However, it doesn't change the fact that their purpose is about legal risk.
Here is an analogy to management. The role of the manager is to make their employees more effective at their work. It is not about making employees happy. Every good manager wants to make employees happy, but they are delusional if they think employee happiness is the purpose of their job. Same with HR.
The institution of Human Resources, the conceptual underpinnings, will drive all HR actions toward whatever is most likely to avoid a lawsuit or other high-profile dispute resolution processes. Their number one priority is to make problems go away in the lowest-stakes way possible (notice I did not say "solve"). The mantra of a properly functioning HR department is, "Let's find a way to make sure this doesn't escalate further." While they are ensuring the paperwork gets filed, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk. While they are listening to employee complaints, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk. While they are helping a manager with disciplinary issues, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk.
That is their role. In Part 2 next week, we will explore the question, "What does the real role of HR imply about how I should operate as a manager?" In the meantime, I encourage you to think on that question yourself. Hint: the answer is not "get bitter and untrusting of every HR professional."
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