If you ever have worked at a big company, then you may have been exposed to someone, or even many people, who would have self-identified as being a Human Resources (HR) person, or part of a HR team, or department.
What is a Human Resources (HR) person, team, or department‽
Human Resources (HR) is whatever a company calls “human resources” (“HR”).
(Which, of course, can be different from company, to company.)
Which is a factually accurate definition of Human Resources (HR). And if you want a “real” definition, then that is probably it.
But, to many that is an unsatisfying definition. To many, that is an unsatisfying answer to the question “what is HR?”. Regardless whether that is the truth, that is not what many want to hear.
Another way of trying to offer an answer to the question “what is HR?” might be to try to list some of the things many who self-identifiy as doing HR, or being in HR do.
Here is a list of what I have noticed are commonalities across multiple companies (I have either worked with, created, or have some other familiarity with) between individuals who self-identify as doing HR, or being in HR:…
- HR usually has some involvement with recruiting,
- HR usually has some involvement with hiring,
- at least officially HR usually has some involvement with controlling salary amounts (although in reality others in the company may be the ones actually making the decisions),
- HR acts as a buffer between employees, and the company owners, the board, executives, and managers (with respect to employees asking for an increase in salary, etc).
Not all companies have a Human Resources (HR) person, team, or department.
YMMV but, I have never seen a startup, or very small company with a person (let alone a team, or a department) whose only function is Human Resources (HR).
Many medium, and large companies don't have Human Resources (HR) person, team, or department.
Where Does HR Come From
Although there are some small, many medium sized, and big companies that do not have any HR people, teams, or departments, (some) other companies do have Human Resources (HR).
But for the companies that eventually gain an HR person, teams, or departments, how does the transition from having no HR, to having HR tend to happen‽
I have noticed two ways that companies seem transition from having no HR, to having HR:
- HR as a Buffer:
- one or more individuals are put into the role of “HR” so that they can act as a buffer between those who actually make decisions on salaries, titles, and hiring (ex: the owner of the company, the board, the executives, etc), and the employees of the company, and
- HR as a Institutional Mimicry:
- those running a company, usually due to inexperience, will copy what they believe other companies are doing, and have done, including having HR.
I will explain what I mean by each of these.
HR as a Buffer
Even big companies with hundreds of thousands of people were (very likely) small at one point.
Very very very likely, there was one single person that willed the company into existence! Often (eventually) with the help of others. But it usually starts with a single person.
Sometimes this person is called the founder. (Although not always. But I'll use the label “founder” for the purpose of discussing this.)
In the beginning that person — the founder — might be the one doing recruiting, the one doing the hiring, the one deciding how much each person (working at the company) gets paid, and the one deciding what each person's (official) title is.
As the company grows, and there are more people working at the company, that person — the founder — will (very very likely, eventually) have people working at the company asking for their salary pay to increase, or asking for a promotion in their title (which is usually expected to also come with a pay increase).
Some of these founders can feel uncomfortable with having people in the company (directly, or indirectly due to a promotion) ask them in-person face-to-face for a salary increase — ask them in-person face-to-face for a raise.
Part of the discomfort can be due to what the founder may feel is social conflict.
But part of that discomfort can be due to looking like a ‘bad guy’ for saying “no” to a request for a salary increase.
After some founders go through this a number of times, they react to it by creating a buffer between them and people in the company wanting ask them in-person face-to-face for a salary increase.
This buffer often gets called HR.
The idea being that the buffer is a person (or many people) who others working at the company ask for the pay raise instead of directly asking the founder.
This makes it so the founder doesn't have to feel the discomfort they were feeling.
And makes it so when the buffer says "no", the buffer looks like the ‘bad guy’, and the founder can try to act like they are the ‘good guy’. Even though usually it is really the founder still making the decisions in terms of salary amounts, titles, etc.
HR As Salary Control
I have seen a number of ways that HR is used to control the salaries of the employees working at a company.
Some of these methods could be described a “games”, narratives, or acts of deception.
A effect of all of these seems to be to either prevent, or at least discourage an employee from directly asking for more salary, or make it seem as if it is not HR saying “no”, but that it is the employee's, or the “industry's” fault that they didn't get the salary increase.
I.e., aways of averting social conflict, and blame, and direct dicussion.
Some of these methods are:
- pay bands being associated with titles while restricting title promotion,
- performance reviews where fault is always found so as not to have to give a salary increase,
- inter-company sharing of salary information, while trying not to let salaries for a title be outside of what others companies are paying for that title.