After I conducted an informal poll and endured a few “uh-oh, HR is here” remarks when I walked in the room, I realized she wasn’t alone in her thinking. This got me wondering: What caused this perception of HR? How can we change it?
To answer these questions, let’s start with a little stroll through history. Following the second industrial revolution in the early 1900s, factories were suddenly filled with thousands of workers. Personnel departments were created to help businesses comply with emerging labor laws, increase safety and efficiency, process employee grievances and negotiate with labor unions. Workers were parts of a system to be managed.
Against the backdrop of the humanist era, personnel departments evolved in the 1960s into human resources departments. Workers were seen as valuable resources that could be trained and motivated to perform at high levels. HR departments performed assessments, developed trainings, created policies and managed employee relations. With a transactional approach to people, HR departments performed administrative duties behind the scenes to enforce policies and ensure people were paid and trained.
This iteration of HR persisted until the early 2000s. As the information era sprinted forward — and replaced factory jobs with knowledge jobs that required people to create, innovate, exercise good judgement and learn quickly — high-performing HR departments transformed again. Informed by research that showed people are motivated by more than extrinsic rewards and driven by a wholistic view of people, these departments worked to unlock and leverage employee creativity and discretionary effort and recognized their people were their competitive advantage.
Fast forward to today. HR has burst onto the scene as one of the key players in organizations. HR focuses on results. It nurtures organizational change. It sees around corners and plans for the future. It develops targeted interventions that improve employee experiences. It taps into workers’ intrinsic motivations by communicating a compelling sense of shared purpose, fostering autonomy and providing development opportunities that help people achieve a sense of mastery.
If this new version of HR doesn’t yet have a voice in every C-suite, it soon will. As more businesses shift from viewing their people as interchangeable parts to elevating them as drivers of value, they’ll shift from viewing their HR departments as the principal’s office to elevating them as strategic business consultants.
Many organizations already do this. Hilltop recently rebranded its human resources department as people operations to reflect these changes. Our team still oversees compliance, compensation and employee relations. But it also consults with managers and offers insights that guide direction and strategy. It works to operationalize the company’s mission and values. It seeks to align programs with organizational goals. It promotes employee well-being and engagement. It regularly collects data about the employee experience through surveys and interviews. Its business partners help managers solve problems and achieve desired outcomes.
How are we making this shift? To start, our business partners conducted “recontracting” meetings with every operations manager to uncover their beliefs about HR, understand their biggest pain points and talk about their business goals. We identified the services each manager valued most and noted specific areas on which we could work.
Next, we worked through the stages of our own team development: forming, storming, norming and performing.
In forming, we each completed an assessment to identify and discuss our individual strengths. We also studied a book that helped us commit to new and healthy ways of interacting and serving internal customers.
In storming, we reorganized our structure and engaged in candid conversations.
In norming, we developed a team mission statement and set objectives and key results.
Now in the performing stage, we’ve established several cross-functional teams of people from different departments to help build new processes and practices for recruitment, performance management and learning and development. By avoiding the traditional “bake and ship” method of rolling out new programs, we’re creating the sense in the organization we’re on their team and share their goals.
I haven’t seen that Hilltop employee since she made that comment. But I sense if she stops by any time soon, she’ll find a team that truly cares about her and every other Hilltopper. We’re the people operations team now, and we truly put people first.