What Does a Human Resources Person Do?

Dear Liz,

I'm graduating from college in the spring and I'm thinking that Human Resources might be a good career for me to pursue. I love managing projects (I'm a Resident Advisor and do a lot of program planning in that job) and I like untangling interpersonal issues. Can you help me understand what HR people do?



Dear Jaran,

How exciting a time this must be for you! I love your idea of exploring HR career paths. I've been an HR person since about six years before you were born, and I'm always happy to recruit people in the HR profession.

When you read about HR positions and their responsibilities, you'll see a lot of references to employee benefit plans and recruiting systems and policies and guidelines and other stuff like that. Most of those things will show up at some point in every HR career, but they are strictly tools and means to an end.

If you were to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, they'd teach you about roof trusses and downspouts and other things you may not have cared about or worked with before. Everything they taught you at Habitat would be important to know, and the more you volunteered for Habitat the more familiar the tools would become. At the same time, you'd never tell your friends or feel in your heart "My work at Habitat is all about learning how to use building tools."

You'd know that your work had everything to do with giving families and individuals a safe and warm place to live. Even when you were hot and tired on the top of a roof, it would be difficult to lose sight of the value of your work on the Habitat team. When you began, there was no house (or a house was falling down) and then, after you and your team got in there and went to work, a wonderful house appeared! A family moved in. Their life was changed for the better, and so was yours. That's the magical part of the assignment. That's why people volunteer for Habitat all over the world. The mission is the whole point.

HR people create an environment charged with creative pixie dust and trust. That's the job description. If you want the complicated version, there are two parts to an HR job:

Two-Part HR Job Description:

Part One: Look after the individuals in your organization to make sure that they're supported in bringing themselves fully to work, and to make sure that when problems crop up, they're addressed quickly and forthrightly. Part Two: Look after the team as a whole and the energy in your shop, to make sure the atmosphere is warm and open and that the organization you work for is a place where community and collaboration thrive.

If you want to simplify the HR assignment, here's a version with only one to-do item:

Simple HR Job Description:

Work every day to replace fear with trust in your shop.

You can see that policies and benefits and recruiting systems are parts of the assignment, but they mean nothing on their own. If your employee health plan records are accurate and your premiums are paid on time, but no one takes vacation time because the invisible loudspeakers are screaming Don't You Dare Use Vacation Time, then you have no benefits program in reality.

Benefits people deal with the details on the spreadsheet and the much more important reality on the ground. They can't just process benefits forms. Any drone could do that. They have to collaborate with other people (managers and non-managers) to create a vision for a benefits program (and bring it about) that will get the best people in the employer's door and keep them there.

A Recruiting person can't just set up a recruiting process. Any robot could do that. They have to understand why people come to their company and why they don't, and work every day to make the place worthy of the talented people they say they're looking for. They have to strip way bureaucracy, radio silence and corporatespeak wherever they find it in the recruiting process. (These guys have their work cut out for them.)

Employee relations people can't just hand out tissues when unhappy employees come to see them. They have to spot and address disturbances in the Force wherever they arise, and they have to work to keep the topic of team mojo high on the company's strategic radar screen.

HR people who focus on training can't just set up training programs and run people through them. They have to build context into the training, and help training participants understand that what matters is not the coursework itself but the muscles (mojo muscles! dot-connecting muscles! telling the truth muscles!) that get built individually and collectively when training is done well.

As you can see Jaran, HR is a righteous profession, but only when it's done righteously by people who are mojofied and who can first see and then bring about a culture of trust and creative collaboration. Like all big undertakings, bringing your whole self to an HR assignment is simple to describe but not necessarily easy in practice. You'll doubt yourself and you'll get frustrated, but you'll get better all the time at saying hard things that need to be said.

Over time, you'll get better at seeing more than one solution to a problem, and seeing complicated issues from more than one perspective. You'll learn about yourself and the world, and you'll become very good at forging one-on-one connections and sending good energy out to people you haven't met yet. You'll learn how to wade into shark-infested waters and tackle big issues -- political, cultural, financial and operational. You'll find your voice. You'll use your voice to make the environment healthier for everyone. Isn't that a mission worth celebrating?

HR people are charged-up and effective in their jobs when they see their role above the level of hammers and nails and roof trusses. That's what you will do if you decide to become an HR person. As you begin your exploration process, don't be discouraged by any all-about-the-rules, fear-based HR people you may meet. I would be lying to you if I didn't point out that they are easy to find in corporate America. It's not bad to run into one of those folks; a conversation with a fearful, bureaucratic HR people will make it easier for you to run away from the employers you'd hate working for and spend your time finding the ones who will get you (and who get people in general). Working for any other kind of employer would be a waste of your time, brains and talent.

The world needs eyes-open, energy-aware HR people Jaran, and I predict that you'll have a blast shifting frames and moving organizations from fear to trust. Keep us posted!