Is 'HR' too unfashionable for modern job titles?

People directors, CHROs, and even mood coordinators are taking over from HR directors. What's behind the shift? And how weird should your moniker get?

Mood coordinator. Culture evangelist. Welcome to the new world of HR job titles. If you’re a boring old HR adviser, maybe now’s the time to up your game.

Recruiters, practitioners, academics and other industry observers all agree there is a discernable shift away from the use of the term ‘HR’ in official designations. Instead, ‘people professionals’ are becoming increasingly prevalent, alongside both the weird and wacky and more sensible variants such as chief HR officer or head of employee experience (Harrods is among employers with such a hire within its ranks).

More specifically, People Management’s detailed trawl of LinkedIn data – presented on these pages – suggests the numbers of HR directors and people directors in the UK are now almost equal, at around 34,000 each, despite the fact that ‘people director’ as a term was barely known beyond the US a decade ago. And names such as VP of people and chief talent officer are also gaining traction fast.

Why is this happening, and does it represent part of a larger shift in the HR profession? Does moving from HR to people have an effect on a department’s standing in the business, or its ability to recruit the brightest and best talent?

Perry Timms, consultant, self-professed chief energy officer and author of Transformational HR, sees these shifts as part of a deliberate move to “better define what the role means to the people of the organisation, and a move away from professional labels”. The HR moniker has, he says, “an association with work-related misdemeanours that has created a stigma”.

Nick Court, director of HR consulting firm Cloud9 People, agrees. Employers that are rebranding ‘HR’ are doing so because the function is all too often “regarded as the policy police, the admin team, and the grievance and disciplinary arm of the organisation”, he says.

Even so, the trend is not confined to HR. From engineering to marketing, professionals are less likely to adhere to the rigid structures and progression routes of yesteryear. And from ninjas and jedis to heroes and overlords, few sectors are immune to the desire to jazz up a job title with an interesting addendum.

In part, this simply reflects the fact that there are more jobs and more specialisms in a more complex world. As Katie Bailey, professor of management at the University of Sussex, points out, in the 1980s ‘personnel management’ was ubiquitous but gave way in time to a broader range of titles as HR became popular (there are only around 5,000 personnel directors left in the UK).

There are also external trends that influence the direction of job title travel. Most US HR leaders are CHROs, and it seems logical that over time US-headquartered multinationals will export this idea to the rest of the world. Similarly, the term HR business partner goes in and out of fashion in line with adherence to the Ulrich model that spawned it.

The term ‘resources’ may itself just have fallen out of vogue, bringing with it associations with the idea of commodity. “There’s ​a ​big ​workplace movement ​to ​encourage ​people ​to ​bring ​their ​full ​selves ​to ​work, which ​can ​only ​happen ​when ​we ​treat ​employees ​as ​people ​rather than ​resources,” says Samantha Perry, head of people at carwow. “Titles ​have ​started ​to ​change ​to ​linguistically ​encourage ​this.”

What is clear is that chosen terminology around titles affects employer branding and employees’ perceptions of HR professionals and their responsibilities – something that Laura Haynes, owner of HR and recruitment consultancy business Freshhr, has experienced first hand.

The managers and leaders she works with “often see a disconnect” between their people vision and what they perceive as HR, she says: “So I try to avoid having HR in job titles as much as possible.” On the other hand, recruiters report little evidence that ditching HR from a job title makes candidates more desirable, or commands higher salaries.

So do words really matter – or are we just wasting time on labels that aren’t that important? Ruth Stuart, lead consultant for strategic projects at the CIPD, says linguistics are vital because they drive perceptions and “send a signal to clients and colleagues” about your intent and primary focus. The phrase ‘human resources’ can be perceived as negative, she says, because of its connotations with “treating employees like a line on a balance sheet as opposed to real people”. But there’s no point rebranding yourself chief happiness officer if it doesn’t reflect what you do. “Any changes to job titles must be backed by a shift in activity, behaviours and outcomes,” says Stuart.

Andrea Pattico, chief people officer at internet marketing services company MVF, oversaw the HR team’s change to ‘people’ team last year to better fit with the organisation’s culture, ambitions and values. “The name reflects our attitude towards our colleagues – that they are people rather than resources,” she says.

“HR is becoming more disruptive to meet the needs of the business, so it seems odd to use an old label to describe a new approach. Contemporary organisations want to provide an experience for their people that engages them to deliver value, helps them develop beyond the workplace, inspires them and doesn’t try to employ ‘one size fits all’ tactics, but instead recognises individual strengths.”

And there are wider positive effects, too; the ability to reshape your job title to better reflect what you actually do – so-called ‘self-reflective job titles’ – was found to reduce stress, and improve approachability and sense of self-expression in a study by social scientist Adam Grant.

A name change is clearly not a decision to be taken lightly, or in isolation from the bigger organisational picture. If the only time employees interact with HR is during grievances and disciplinaries, it’s “disingenuous to rebrand as the ‘people’ function”, warns Court. “If you’re thinking about changing your job title, look at the market and make sure the title is reflective of what the role does and similar roles at other companies – or you risk missing out on possible applicants when advertising vacancies.”

You shouldn’t allow a focus on new job titles to distract from the day job, either, says David D’Souza, head of engagement and London at the CIPD. “There’s a danger HR could spend too much time on naming and branding and not enough on delivery. There is far more brand risk in not being adequately supported by HR or seeing outdated approaches than there is in a name change.”

And while it might be tempting to rebrand yourself as a reward scrummaster or an engagement evangelist, there is a significant danger of undermining your body of professional knowledge and HR skills in the process. “Having a fun title may be an ice-breaker and look more approachable but, when tough decisions have to be made, it can undermine professional credibility if you are the director of happiness,” says Bailey. “The breakdown of traditional job title hierarchies can also make it difficult for employees to understand how their role fits into the wider organisation.”

Even so, titles will inevitably evolve to reflect the changing remit of HR and, in particular, the sort of technology it is employing to effect change. D’Souza suggests we will see a new generation of HR data scientists, people technology specialists and human analytics experts, as the old HR executive and administrator roles fade away.

Timms, meanwhile, takes a more pragmatic view, remaining relaxed about changing a job title if you feel it genuinely better reflects the work you and your department do. The golden rule, he points out: “Above all, it has to mean something to the people doing the work.”