One of my HR mentors recently shared an anecdote from early in her career as an HR Business Partner. Her office was such a hotspot of activity that the leaders and colleagues she supported would joke that she should put a ticket dispenser outside her door.
Others commented that she should install a sofa in her office so employees could ‘make themselves comfortable’ for the therapy session that inevitably ensued.
While the statements were made in jest, they held a glaring truth—her role as an HR professional was often misunderstood by those she worked with. With that truth came another, she wasn’t being utilized to the best of her capabilities because she was performing duties that weren’t technically within the remit of her role.
While a huge part of working in HR does involve helping people (this is the best part!), acting as a therapist probably falls outside of the standard job description.
My mentor’s story isn’t an uncommon one either. The human resources function is broad and includes many duties that other employees don’t realize exist. Additionally, an HR team can vary drastically in its scope and accountability based on the size of the organization it supports, the needs of the business, and even the company culture.
So what are the most common human resources responsibilities? Here, I’ll try to capture all that HR is responsible for regarding serving employees and the business.
- Attraction And Recruitment
- To Outsource Or Not To Outsource?
So what is human resources exactly?
According to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), human resource management “is the process of managing an organization's employees. HRM includes all aspects of people management to effectively meet an organization's goals.”
If that sounds broad, it's because it is. And what makes this even more complex is that human resources responsibilities are continuously evolving to meet the needs of the business.
Akin to many other professional specializations, the COVID-19 pandemic, Great Resignation/Reset/Reshuffle, and other pressures are compelling HR teams to rapidly modernize or leave their organizations floundering for talent.
Employees are now demanding more from companies in terms of compensation, culture, work-life balance, career growth, benefits—the list goes on. The human resources function is central to each of these demands.
Subtle shifts have already occurred. Your HR team may have transitioned away from the “Human Resources” nomenclature and may be leaning into other terminology such as “People and Culture” or “People Operations”.
This updated branding is designed to better align with what human resource responsibilities are transitioning towards—a more strategic, empathetic approach to creating an employee experience where all employees and the business can succeed.
Human resources responsibilities
In a strategically designed HR function, all components of the HR team are aligned to enable the company to deliver on its purpose, hit organizational goals, and create a great workplace for its people.
Human resources responsibilities are often structured around the life cycle of the employee.
The employee life cycle (sometimes also known as the employee journey) refers to the various stages in which your employees will interact with your organization.
The human resources responsibilities covered below are structured around this model to help you understand how HR practitioners provide support to leaders and their employees during all stages of their employment.
1. Employee Life Cycle: Attraction and Recruitment
Recruitment, also commonly known as talent acquisition, is the process of attracting, sourcing, and selecting employees.
Recruitment is one of the single most important HR responsibilities and also one of the most challenging, especially in today’s uber-competitive labor market where companies are continually vying for top talent.
It should be more than just putting butts in seats (otherwise known as filling job vacancies). The aim is to create short and long-term strategies to promote the employer brand and bring the right type of talent into the organization.
As such, recruitment often includes sub-functions like university relations teams designed to build pipelines of early-career talent and workforce initiative programs developed to recruit diverse talent.
It also covers choosing technologies such as applicant tracking systems and sourcing software to manage talent pools/pipelines, post job openings, manage the interview process, and even onboard new hires into the organization’s HR information systems.
2. Employee Life Cycle: Onboarding
Onboarding is the process through which new employees are assimilated into the organization.
This consists of technical components, such as providing them with system access to the tools they’ll need to do their job, and more strategic components, for example developing a 30-60-90 day plan to ensure they get off to the best possible start with your organization as possible.
Related read: best onboarding software
2.1 Maintain employee records
Another essential component of the onboarding process includes setting up and maintaining employee records.
Generally, this is now done in a Human Resource Management System (HRMS) or Human Resources Information System (HRIS). Through automation and shared access, these systems help HR teams, and employees themselves, to store and update employment data. They may also include numerous other features such payroll, performance management, and benefits administration.
3. Employee Life Cycle: Employee Retention
Once someone’s been onboarded, they enter the largest category of the employee life cycle—employee retention.
This includes all activities designed to deliver a great employee experience and ensure that your people have everything they need in order to remain successfully engaged with your organization.
3.1 Creating a great culture
LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Talent Trends report calls this a ‘watershed moment for company culture” stating that:
For companies to attract, retain, and grow the talent that will bring them sustained success, they need to fine-tune — or overhaul — their culture to meet the expectations of professionals to be seen as human beings first.
HR is responsible for partnering with the executive leadership team to both define and maintain the company culture.
This includes helping define the company’s mission, vision, and values, and also ensuring employees and leaders at all levels are living by the company’s values.
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3.2 Employee Experience
One of the primary ways that organizations keep abreast of the employee experience is through pulse checks, listening sessions, or other data collection methodologies.
While business leaders play a primary role in driving employee engagement within their segments, HR is strategically positioned to act as cultural ambassadors to help drive business leaders’ focus on refining the employee experience, as well as recognizing opportunity areas and proposing/implementing solutions.
Relates read: People Ops As A Product
3.3 Assisting employees
If you ask a room full of HR professionals what they love most about their job, you’ll commonly hear the same answer: “Having the opportunity to help people.”
Providing employees with support, coaching, feedback and other assistance is the cornerstone through which human resources can help create a positive work environment at their organization.
This could be helping employees navigate the organization and understand where to go for specific information related to their employment (such as Paid Time Off (PTO) issues, benefits questions, etc). Or it could be a much more complex task like understanding how to navigate their career path and build the right competencies and skills needed to realize their career aspirations.
The “who” behind assisting employees can vary greatly depending on your organization. Smaller organizations may rely heavily on HR generalists to support their colleagues. Larger organizations may be much more reliant on HR call centers, automation, and other solutions to help empower employees to ascertain this information in real-time.
3.4 Strategic partner to the business and leadership
Human resources is a strategic partner to the business. Roles such as HR Business Partner are often embedded into specific parts of the organization. This is so that an HR professional can partner directly with each teams’ senior leadership to help define their business strategies and align HR strategies to support the direction of the business.
Additionally, as organizations grow or change, HR plays a major role in the organizational design process: the process through which teams are structured to ensure they are efficient, effective, and functionally capable of delivering on their goals/objectives.
3.5 Formulating compensation and benefits programs
A major part of boosting employee retention includes creating a compensation and benefit structure so that employees feel valued for their contributions and receive fair and equitable remuneration for the value they’re generating.
Likewise, a properly established benefits program and administration process is a key part of ensuring your employees stay healthy and cared for. When done right, both compensation and benefits can be key drivers in promoting employee engagement, loyalty, and retention.
3.6 Processing payroll
Beyond the philosophical components of a compensation and benefits program, it’s equally essential that employees consistently receive their paychecks on time with both the correct compensation and in compliance with tax laws.
Human Resource teams are accountable for processing payroll and ensuring your organization has a culture of accountability where employees trust that they will receive accurate and timely compensation for the work they are doing. This includes not just base pay, but other incentives, bonuses, paid time off (PTO), deductions, and more.
Related read: 10 Best Online Payroll Software In 2023
3.7 Designing and updating company policies
Managing an organization and its employees is nothing short of complex. Well established policies and procedures provide structure and ensure that all colleagues are treated in a fair, equitable, and consistent manner.
So what are HR policies? According to Mike Gibbons, HR policies are the “rules and processes that govern the employment relationship between you and your team members.” This can include many areas such as employee conduct, technology use, paid time off, and health and safety standards.
As organizations grow in complexity and headcount, policy documentation becomes essential in providing self-service support to employees and managers.
Rather than managing issues on a case-by-case basis, your employees and leaders are empowered to lean on your policies to navigate complex issues in an ethical manner compliant with your organization’s expectations.
3.8 Ethics and Compliance
The reality of operating any business—regardless of the industry you work in—is that it’s essential to have an ethics-driven workforce that remains compliant with the rules, regulations and stipulations that impact your business.
Compliance is key in maintaining your organization’s reputation within your industry, mitigating risk for the organization, and in preventing unwanted costs associated with regulatory violations. Ethics and compliance can help build a culture of accountability, and ensure that all of your employees live by the company values and behaviors.
HR teams play a major role in setting and maintaining compliance standards. This includes helping manage policy definition, employee training, incident management, and third-party audits.
Related read: Best 10 Compliance Software For HR Departments 
3.9 Employee Relations and Disciplinary Hearings
Employee relations is a critical responsibility in addressing items that impact employee performance, interactions with other employees, or other issues relating to the overall work experience at an organization.
Here, HR plays a key role in acting as an unbiased moderator when addressing conflict between co-workers or management, addressing performance issues, and overseeing organizational disciplinary standards. This means acting as a resource to both employees and managers based on the concerns that an individual is bringing forward.
For the investigation of complaints and disciplinary-related issues, HR plays a key role in establishing investigation protocols and progressive disciplinary policies to ensure employees are provided with a structured approach to improve performance if needed and prevent the recurrence of unacceptable behaviors.
Rapid response to investigate complaints, resolve issues and preside over disciplinary actions if necessary are essential in resolving internal issues, mitigating legal risk, and maintaining a culture of accountability and ethical behavior.
4. Employee Life Cycle: Employee Development
Employee development is an important area for companies to invest in to improve company culture, but it also has a highly strategic component as well: reskilling, upskilling and cross-training employees is an essential part of modernizing and maintaining an organization’s talent capabilities.
4.1 Training and Development
Training and Development (also commonly referred to as Learning and Development) is the process of aligning your talents’ capabilities to meet with the organization’s strategy and vision.
Human Resources teams are strategically positioned to help advise on employee developmental needs and help build strategies that support the growth and development of your talent.
Based upon the complexity of your organization, Human Resources responsibilities can vary dramatically but often include:
- Advising leadership on employee learning and development needs and helping build strategies to support employee growth
- Coaching employees and leaders through the creation of Individual Development Plans (IDPs) to help employees take ownership of their growth and development
- Curriculum creation, including the design and delivery of course materials (instructor led training, web-based training, on-the-job training) and management of Learning Management Systems (LMS)
- Development of internal career mobility solutions, such as internal talent marketplaces, designed to help connect employees to new growth opportunities like their next role, stretch assignments, and mentoring.
4.2 Performance Management
HR’s duties also include defining and maintaining performance management processes that enable both the company and its colleagues to hit its organizational goals.
A well-designed performance management process provides transparency to company goals, a deeper understanding of how all colleagues are contributing to those goals, and creates a collaborative process through which colleagues and their managers can work together to improve performance.
Performance management is also commonly tied to an organization’s compensation philosophies. In a pay-for-performance model, raises, bonuses, and other incentives are often tied directly to both the company's and/or the employee's individual performance over the calendar year.
4.3 Succession Planning
Succession planning, or the process of “building systems and processes to ensure future leadership continuity in an organization”, is a key way in which organizations identify and invest in high-potential talent.
Often, succession planning is part of the wider talent planning process, sometimes known as a “talent review”, during which leaders and HR partners collaborate to assess their employees based on their performance and potential (9-Box rating).
Regular HR-facilitated conversations about high-potential talent and leadership gaps ensure that organizations are developing a pipeline of ready-now talent to fill the leadership vacancies of tomorrow.
4.4 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) remains both a key human resources responsibility as well as an effort that must be championed by all members of the leadership team.
DEI has many components, but, in short, the purpose of DEI work is to build more inclusive and equitable organizations that are representative of the communities in which we live and serve.
DEI efforts are closely intertwined with all elements of the employee life cycle and human resources responsibilities, from recruiting diverse talent to developing a leadership succession slate that's representative of your organization's employee population.
One common way that organizations are celebrating diversity and building more empathic employee relations is through facilitating employee resource groups.
Employee resource groups allow colleagues to gather around a common identity or interest. This is a great way for underrepresented groups of employees to come together to celebrate their interests and organically influence change to build more inclusive organizations.
5. Employee Life Cycle: Offboarding
Human Resources responsibilities extend into offboarding (aka separating or terminating) employees from your organization. Generally, the HR function is accountable for defining an offboarding process (commonly presented as an offboarding checklist) and guiding people through this event.
Depending on the circumstances through which an employee is exiting the organization, there may be additional responsibilities too. For instance, many times a layoff or position elimination situation will result in the generation of a severance package to help support the employee as they transition out of the company and to mitigate legal risk for the organization.
Lastly, exit interviews or surveys are often conducted by human resources partners. The intention of an exit interview is to garner a deeper understanding of why your employees are leaving the organization, identify trends, and make informed changes to help continue to build the best possible experience for your employees.
To Outsource Or Not To Outsource?
It’s clear that human resources responsibilities are broad, complex, and essential to the success of your organization. But how do you manage them all?
A common approach is to outsource some (or potentially all) of your HR functions. Companies, large and small, slice and dice the responsibilities of their HR function to keep some in-house versus delegating to a third-party e.g. Professional Employer Organization (PEO).
Additionally, the geographic, or even international, expansion of an organization can create employment law, tax and other challenges that many organizations aren’t well equipped to navigate.
This is where an Employer of Record (EORs) can become useful. An EOR serves as an independent legal employer for its employees, allowing your organization to expand into a new region without needing to establish your own legal presence in that country.
This comes not only with the benefit of being able to tap into international talent, but gives you the peace of mind of having all of the administrative human resource responsibilities (payroll, benefits processing, etc.) handled by the EOR.
My recommendation, regardless of the size of your company, is to maintain at least a small, strategic human resources function within your organization.
This is because having an in-house HR team is essential to understanding your employees’ needs, providing strategic thought partnership and coaching to managers and leaders, and ensuring your Human Resource responsibilities enable your company to deliver on its purpose, hit its organizational goals, and create a great workplace for your people.
Human resources responsibilities are broad and complex, and it’s important that employees and leaders alike have a deep understanding of how their HR team is there to help both them and the company succeed.
I’d encourage all people managers to get a better understanding of their organization’s HR functions and to build relationships with the HR Director, HR Manager, or HR Business Partner who is there to support you.
While human resources may have standalone accountabilities, there are many shared goals between leaders of people and HR professionals. HR should be positioned to help better manage the entire life cycle of employees and provide strategic input to help meet business deliverables.
Some further resources to help you understand and/or master HR:
- How To Elevate HR As A Strategic Partner Of The Business
- The 9 Best HR Certification Courses For 2023
- 12 Best HR Books You Should Read In 2023
- Human Resource OKR Examples
- How To Develop an HR Strategy: A Comprehensive Guide
- 10 Best DEI Certifications To Take In 2023
- How To Make A Greater Impact At Your Organization As An HR Leader