Are There Really Three Different HR Professions? Answer: Yes

Guest Contributorby Dr. Christopher Lee | Posted | Performance Management

Are There Really Three Different HR Professions? Answer: Yes

In earlier posts I discussed the confusion around HR’s role in organizational success, why activities such as talent management are often led by executives and not HR professionals, and why it is imperative that HR champion high performance as its primary focus in deference to an employee-centric caretaking perspective.

These three ideas taken together articulate one of the challenges with the HR profession today: we’re not always clear on why we exist or what we are supposed to do. This confusion is a reason why we unintentionally undermine ourselves and why we sometimes do not enjoy a favorable reputation with business leaders. 

However, first let’s be fair to ourselves. The professionals with whom I have worked with over my career are some of the brightest, most conscientious, caring, and competent people I have ever met. Yet, we have not always had the impact we needed because we have been working at cross purposes. We have tried to do everything for everybody.

The Three Different HR Professions

After considerable discussion with my colleagues, extensive research, and observations gleaned from the writings and teachings of many HR gurus, I have concluded that there are probably three different HR professions.

1. HR Administration

The first profession we can just call administration—be it personnel administration, HR administration, payroll and benefits administration, or other appropriately named department, function or profession.  The HR administrator pushed paper and is proud of the fact that he takes care of the business of the business. He processes employees’ entry into and exit from the organization, benefits enrollment, and pay.

The smart HR administrator uses technology to complete all manner of administrative transactions and processing. The entry-level to mid-level professionals who do this work love the detail, are admired for their proficiency, and are legendary for their trustworthiness and accuracy.

2. Human Resource Management  

The second profession is the classic human resource management. The typical incumbent has a degree in human resource management, holds a PHR/SPHR certification, and has many years of experience managing HR programs and services.

She hires and fires, establishes policies and procedures for the organization, negotiates benefits plans with vendors, and develops training programs that engage and motivate employees to succeed. 

3. People Strategy

The third profession is people strategy. It contains forward-looking, seasoned business people who develop high level plans and activities that create a competitive advantage for their organizations by leveraging human potential. They think, act, and operate like senior executives.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that not every chief HR officer functions as a senior executive. They may hold the top HR job, but they think like a middle manager with parochial interest in their own function—not an executive focused on overall organizational effectiveness and making money (or achieving the organization’s mission, vision, strategy, and goals).   

Taking apart the HR profession and putting it back together again

Here we have the administrator, the manager, and the strategist. Each of these roles could not be more different. One is concerned about being procedurally correct, the other is focused on taking care of people, and the latter is focused on long-term organizational impact.

One provides maintenance services, another drives productivity, and the other shapes the competitive environment for future success

The administrator thinks about business process improvement, the HR manager thinks about the emotional component of an engaged workforce, and the executive is concerned about customers, costs, and competitors. 

In HR, we have made the mistake of lumping these three different specialists into one group of so-called HR professionals. Worse yet, we have promoted many administrators into HR manager roles without the requisite training, disposition, or interpersonal skills. They do not often succeed as their approach to work is often misaligned.

My observation is also that many organizations have taken line managers and made them HR vice presidents because the business types are better equipped to be strategists than many administrators.  When we take apart the profession and put it back together again the right way, we can better position ourselves in the organization and better position the profession for success.

Let’s hire, train, support, and groom professionals to be excellent in whichever of the three professions they choose. Instead of assuming that we are all cut from the same cloth and can do these three very different jobs with equal ease. This confusion is why we do not have many HR professionals earning a ‘seat at the table’—we oftentimes send forth the wrong people. 

Changing our view of the HR profession

The sales profession bore marketing, finance came from accounting, and engineering spawned architecture. Selling and creating a media campaign that predisposes people to buy are two different parts of a continuum.

Keeping track of the books and analyzing the books to produce predictive ratios that help one manage the financial standing of a company are different activities that depend on one another. Similarly, building a structure does not mean that it will be attractive, habitable, or have a design aesthetic that makes it livable.

It’s time for HR to recognize that personnel/HR administration, HR management, and people strategy are three different professions. Then we should act accordingly and attract and develop the right people for the right positions.

Your turn: Do you think that it is an accurate assumption that the HR profession actually has three different kinds of jobs within it?

A. One profession

B. Two or more distinct professions

C. Three different professions

D. Other

Do you think the skills, background, and disposition of the different type work in HR is distinct enough that people who are predisposed to one type of work are ill-suited for the other (i.e. administrator vs. stategist)? 

Please leave your thoughts on the above in the comments section below.

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