So, tell me again. What exactly do you do?

I spent many moons working as a field rep for a retail chain, which is to say I spent a lot of time walking around my company’s retail stores talking to associates. The premise being that because they were remote, and given that we did not have a designated HR representative at each store, my job was to get in front of the associates, let them know who I was, what I did, and let them know that if they ever had any questions or needed anything, to please give me a call. It was sort of like an inside sales gig, only I wasn’t paid commission (I’m not sure how that would have worked out anyway – a harassment or discrimination claim would net me more than say a good old fashioned “my manager is mean to me” complaint.) Like most salespeople I have met, I used my business cards as a sort of ice breaker. Let me give you an example of a typical exchange that would happen when I would approach an employee:

Me: “Hi, (looking at their name tag) Ralph. My name is Jim Perkins.” After handing my business card to them, I would go on: “I work in Human Resources and thought I would…”

Employee, while looking at my business card: “So what exactly is a Human Resources ________________ anyway?”

It was at this point that my whole speech would be derailed and I would try to explain what I did. By the time I had done that, they would usually give me a dismissive nod and pretend they needed to help a customer.

The truth is, this is not limited to the retail profession. I have worked in a number of different industries besides retail – manufacturing, design, distribution, consulting… and while perhaps not as blatant as the 18-year old who really just wants me to get out of his way so he can get the shoe display straightened before he goes on his break, I run into people all the time – socially and professionally, who don’t know what HR is or what we do. So for everyone out there who has always wanted to know what HR does but was afraid to ask (because you think – mistakenly I might add – that we will fire you), I present the following diagram:

As you can see, there are three circles that intersect:

  1. Policies, Procedures, and Risk Aversion

  2. Business Unit

  3. Administration

The intersection is where your HR Representative falls. Depending on your company or organization, this person may be called an HR Manager, HR Generalist, HR Director, HR Consultant… The title doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what this role entails. It is the unique balance between the business unit or the company, the administrative function or the paperwork aspect, and the policies, procedures, and other areas whose goal is to minimize risk to the organization. When this gets out of balance, HR’s effectiveness goes down.


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