The roles of HR professionals
The roles of HR professionals vary widely according to the extent to which they are generalist (eg HR director, HR manager, HR officer), or specialist (eg head of learning and development, head of talent management, head of reward), the level at which they work (strategic, executive or administrative) the needs of the organization, the view of senior management about their contribution, the context within which they work and their own capabilities. They can act as strategists, business partners, innovators, change agents, internal consultants, facilitators and coaches. Tyson and Fell (1986: 7) believed that they were ‘specialists in managing the employment relationship’. The competencies required are demanding. The various roles are described below.
The general role
The CIPD Profession Map (2013: 9) stated that the HR profession is ‘an applied business discipline with a people and organization specialism’. Research conducted by the CIPD in 2010 emphasized the need for HR professionals to be ‘insight-led’. Sears (2011: 35) reported that the researchers ‘found that demonstrating a sense of purpose that spans the whole pyramid demands a wide-awake HR function, with a deep understanding of business, contextual and organizational factors.
HR professionals can play a proactive role, contributing to the formulation of corporate strategy, developing integrated HR strategies and volunteering guidance on matters related to upholding core values and ethical principles. They help to improve organizational capability – the capacity of the organization to perform effectively and thus reach its goals and work with line managers to deliver performance targets. As described later in this chapter, their role in dealing with people issues can be strategic or innovative and they can act as change agents. They can also be regarded as facilitators; in the words of Tyson and Fell (1986: 65): ‘Their work allows other managerial work to happen.’ But HR professionals are very much concerned with service delivery which, as a basic responsibility of the HR function, is discussed first below.
The service delivery role
The service delivery role of HR professionals operates at a transformational level when HR strategies, programmes and policies are devised and implemented which further the achievement of business goals and help to meet the needs of employees. But for many HR people the emphasis is on transactional activities such as recruitment, training, handling day-to-day employment matters and dealing with employment law matters. The latter is one of the most demanding and time-consuming areas in which they give advice and provide services. A 2002 survey by the CIPD found that two thirds of HR specialists were spending in excess of 20 per cent of their time coping with employment law issues, while a quarter reported that over 40 per cent of their working days were being spent in this way.
For many HR practitioners service delivery is what they do. The importance of this aspect of their work should not be underestimated by focusing too much on strategic or business partner roles. Line managers tend to judge HR professionals on the quality and efficiency of the services they provide, such as recruitment, training and solving people problems, rather than on their strategic capabilities.
The strategic role
HR professionals have a strategic role when they are operating at a transformational (strategic) level as HR directors or heads of the HR function, heads of centres of expertise or key HR functions, and strategic business partners. The strategic HRM skills and knowledge they need to carry out this role are described in Chapter 44. At a transactional level (as an HR officer, adviser or assistant delivering basic HR services such as recruitment or training, or working in an HR shared service centre) their role is not primarily strategic but they can make a contribution to the formulation and implementation of HR strategy.
Strategic level roles
The roles of HR professionals at a strategic level are:
- To formulate and implement, in conjunction with their management colleagues, forward-looking HR strategies that are based on insights into the needs of the organization, aligned to business objectives and integrated with one another. In doing so they adopt an ‘outside-in’ approach as described by Wright et al(2004) in which the starting point is the business, including the customer, competitor and business issues it faces. The HR strategy then derives directly from these challenges in order to create real solutions and add real value.
- To contribute to the development of business strategies. They do this by advising on how the business can achieve its strategic goals by making the best use of its human resources and by demonstrating the particular contribution that can be made by the talented people it employs.
- To work alongside their line management colleagues and provide on an everyday basis continuous support to the implementation of the business or operational strategy of the organization, function or unit.
The strategic contribution of HR advisers or assistants
The role of HR advisers or assistants is primarily that of delivering effective HR services within their function, or as a member of an HR service centre. While they will not be responsible for the formulation of HR strategies they may contribute to them within their own speciality. They will need to understand the business goals of the departments or managers for whom they provide services in order to ensure that these services support the achievement of those goals.