What is HR? (And what should it be?)

The areas falling under HR’s remit are often many and varied, says Shakil Butt. But should they be, and how can the profession better attract fresh talent?

I thought I was unique. I changed careers from finance to HR by accident, not design. I was asked to ‘babysit’ a new division as the HR and OD director as an interim solution for three months. It was not until I took on the permanent role and started to meet other HR professionals that I realised how many had ‘fallen’ into HR from other career paths and so how wrong I was to think I was unique. Some had started in an administrative role and taken on some additional responsibilities. Some had become trainers in their own area of technical specialism and then found themselves ‘owning’ learning and development for other disciplines. 

There were very few professionals I met who had opted to go into HR from school age and been hardcore HR throughout their entire career. HR is not presented as a career choice alongside other professions such as finance, engineering, law and medicine, despite the importance of the discipline to every industry and sector. Over time it became obvious to me that one of the reasons is that very few understand what HR is or, more importantly, what its potential is to be a game-changer in organisations.

As an accountant I never felt I had to explain to anyone what I did. There was an understanding that my role was important, it added value, was a professional discipline and was respectable. I learnt very quickly that HR was positioned in some quarters as the ‘poor cousin’ of finance. This was painfully apparent when trying to explain to others outside of HR what I did. Either I had to simplify or expand on the perception that I was only ‘hiring and firing’.

Sadly, if you type the words ‘HR is…’ into a search engine, the top results listed are as follows:

  • HR is… not your friend
  • HR is… system
  • HR is… pointless
  • HR is… there to protect the company
  • HR is… bullying me

It seems we have a reputational problem. So what is HR?

One only has to look at some HR director job descriptions to realise that at times HR becomes the part of the organisation to ‘dump’ the areas that do not fit neatly anywhere else in the organisational structure. When I was an HRD, my own directorate had the usual suspects of human resources and learning and development, which included responsibility for transactional elements such as payroll and attendance, but additionally had strategy, policy and process, internal audit and monitoring and evaluation. Other HRDs in my network had information systems, logistics, transportation, administration... or indeed anything else that involves other human beings.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to just focus on the human resources and learning and development elements and move the other parts of my directorate to elsewhere in the organisation – on the premise that, if done properly, the former would occupy my every waking moment.

The phrase ‘HR professional only because multitasking ninja is not an actual job title’ springs to mind. Unofficial lawyer, psychologist, event planner, teacher, peace maker, career planner, detective… The role of HR professional is so broad and encapsulates so much. HR can be all these things and so much more. But if I had to summarise it, it would be about unleashing human potential through alignment of purpose and values and bringing it back down to the individual by answering that all important question: WIFM – what’s in it for me? 

It is great to see the profession is now increasingly focusing on people and culture rather than policies, processes and systems, shifting away from being operational and evolving into something greater. This is the proposition that I’d advocate for as a real career choice so we attract talent into the pipeline of the profession and can stand alongside other professions as equals, confident in what we bring as part of our toolkit and the difference we make to our organisations. 

Indeed, the fact so many like myself start in one career and end up moving into this profession is testament to what we find once we get here. I’ve never looked back.

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire