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The kind of one-liner explanation or definition of HR that you’re likely to encounter is something like this “Human Resources is an umbrella term for a collection of functions that assist an organisation to deliver value through its employees, contractors, and agency staff”.

However, I view and define Human Resources is as a lifecycle—I recall presenting ‘what is HR’ as a lifecycle (actually of a butterfly) to a group of quite senior colleagues at the time, and receiving some confused looks.

Stay with me on this one, and just like that group of colleagues, I promise you’ll walk away with a functional and useful understanding of what Human Resources is about.

The approach I’ve taken in explaining what HR does is to follow an employee through being attracted to a role/organisation, day one on the job, their day-to-day interactions with HR, and then finally leaving the organisation.

In other articles, I focus more on the HR side, however, in this explanation I’ve looked at HR through the eyes of the employee.

Attracting new employees
As a potential employee, we start off by looking for an organisation that not only meets our financial needs, but also our intellectual and social needs, and aligns with our values.

Organisations are aware of this and want to find employees who share or align with their own organisational values, etc. The role that HR has in this space is the delivery of something called an Employee Value Proposition (EVP).

The EVP sets out what the organisation is happy to make available to you, it comprises both the remuneration (salary, wages) that you will receive and the benefits, that you can access as an employee.

In creating/supplementing the EVP, the HR function will come up with a list of benefits, which align with the wider values of the organisation. They then whittle those down to ones that are both affordable and would be seen as attractive to the largest proportion of the workforce the organisation wants to attract.

Some examples of aspects of these EVP benefits that I’ve encountered include funds for training that each employee can apply for, maternity or paternity leave over and above the legislative minimum, availability of funding for conference attendance, discounts on the products of the employer, security guard escorts to your car or train station after hours.

The EVP is a powerful tool that HR holds to attract employees. One organisation I worked with provided a security guard escorts to your car or train station after hours.

I am never going to use this benefit—I typically work during daylight hours. However, I am interested in working for organisations which care about the safety of their employees.

When this came up in conversation with this employer, it gave me insight into their culture, which resonated with my own values and wants from an employer.

So HR has a tool through the EVP to attract applicants, HR also has duties within the recruitment and selection space. The recruitment function will either sit within the HR team, or HR will manage the relationship between the organisation and the external recruitment firm it has engaged.

Often it’s a combination of both, some easy to fill roles will be recruited by HR, while specialist or very senior roles will be handled by an external recruitment firm.

When HR is doing the recruiting they will support the hiring manager in composing the job advertisement, and also assist in determining which channels they will use to advertise the role (local or national newspaper, job sites, social media, specialist journals, etc).

The applications received typically go through to the hiring manager to vet, sometimes HR will also assist in this aspect if they’re asked to. Once at the selection phase it really depends on the organisation the role that HR has to play.

Sometimes HR will offer interview training for managers, sometimes someone from HR will sit in on the interview, other times it can be left completely with the hiring manager.

Once the hiring decision is made, HR will typically have a part to play on the administration side, they’ll send out the contract, they’ll receive the signed contract back, and have the new employee set up in the payroll system.

The issuing of security cards and/or IT access isn’t done within HR, however by HR entering the details of the new employee into the payroll system, it triggers these other aspects to happen.

Sometimes potential employees will ask for a higher salary. The role that HR plays in this is typically about providing guidance to the hiring manager. HR might provide a salary range that the manager can offer, or they might ask the manager to justify why they want to offer this candidate a higher amount.

In these cases, HR and the hiring manager will have a conversation about the best way forward and one that takes internal equity and performance expectations into account.

Day one for the new employee

Most of us will recall the employee orientation process that we went through on our first week, the orientation is created and run by your Human Resources team.

They will take their cues from senior management (the Board and CEO) and will assemble a presentation or plan designed to get new employees up to speed as quickly as possible.

Often, the orientation will place greater focus on the culture and expectations of your employer and much less on the technical side of your employment.

For example, it might include a section on the history of the organisation, an executive may deliver a 15-minute presentation on the organisation or their section in the organisation, or it may include a visit to one of the coal face areas of the business (a plant, retail store, depot, or call center, etc).

The day-to-day life of an employee

The vast majority of employees have very little if any face to face interaction with HR, potentially only seeing an HR Practitioner during a presentation or other such group event.

What employees will do however is interact with the policies and procedures that HR has ownership over. If you’re ever applied for any type of leave, or some training, filled out a timesheet, quit a job, filled out an engagement survey, received a pay increase, or been fired, then you've interacted with a policy or procedure that HR owns and maintains.

Where HR Practitioners do spend a lot of face-to-face time with employees and their managers is around managing poor performance and change management.

In the case of a poor-performing employee, HR will discuss the issues with the manager and come up with a plan, they’ll often be in the meetings with the poor performing employee and will monitor the progress of the employee until they either perform well or are exited from the organisation.

The other area where HR Practitioners spend quite a bit of face to face time is around change, this might be restructuring an area, outsourcing a function, redundancy situations.

Change is often upsetting, so the role of HR is to address questions and ensure that as little disruption as possible is experienced by the business and the employees.

Leaving the organisation

In most cases when an employee leaves the organisation, the only interaction they will have with HR is to answer an exit survey. On the very rare occasion, HR might be engaged by the manager of the exiting employee to come up with a counteroffer to retain the employee.

I’ve been on the sidelines of a couple of counteroffer situations through my roles in remuneration. They are rare because most of us are fairly easy to replace because they don’t often work. They can certainly retain the employee for a short period but, from my observations and discussions with colleagues, that same employee will usually leave within a few months.

I’ve briefly touched on many topics in the above explanation of what HR does but, of course, there are a lot more responsibilities such as workforce planning or procuring HR software.

If you’re interested in understanding aspects of HR in greater detail, please do have a look around the site.

By Brendan Lys

Operating at the intersection of Human Resources and Data Science, I leverage extensive specialist experience within Human Resources, with the methodologies and approaches of Data Science. This focus on the discovery of actionable insights from data, has been applied to areas such as: remuneration & benefits, workforce planning, recruitment, health & safety, diversity, and training. But what does the application of data science to HR challenges and opportunities actually look like. Within an HR framework the data we work with typically comes directly from our HRMIS, an advantage of using data science methodologies is that we can bring in additional data either held within the organization or from external sources - data which is out of reach from a pure HR analytics approach. Consider for example position descriptions, these contain a wealth of data that we typically ignore as its not in a analysis ready format. A side project I'm working on currently (April 2019) is using text mining on job descriptions to provide insights into which job family the position may fit into. The insights of my work have been enjoyed by organizations across a diversity of sectors including: Government (Australia and New Zealand), ASX and NZX listed companies, utilities, not for profit and higher education.