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The 6 Best HR Books Every HR Professional Should Read

BY -

John Zappe

September 20, 2021

Want to grow your HR tech knowledge 🤓?

Anyone searching for the best HR books faces a mountain of “best of” lists. The challenge is knowing which really are the best human resources reads and which are simply lists of books about HR.

Amazon is no help. In the field of human resources, there are more than 60,000 titles. Add “best HR books” to the search and you still get more than 30,000.

As if that didn’t make things difficult enough, what a recruiter might consider a best HR book may be very different from what an HR manager would choose. And different still from what those looking for help with specific competencies would pick.

The Society for Human Resource Management has a list of books about HR approved for recertification. So in a sense, that’s yet another best HR list.

Fortunately, there’s a select group of books that have become classics in the field of human resources. You’ll find them on the shelves of top HR leaders and many business leaders as well. We’ve chosen a half dozen that most often appear on lists of the best HR books and are must-reads for every HR professional committed to building a great company.

At the end of the list, we’ve included a few more that may not top any of the best HR books lists but are among the best human resources books we’ve read.

Have your own favorites that didn’t make our list? Post them to our HR community.

Our order is purely alphabetical.

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently

First, Break all the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by Gallup

Managers are responsible for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units, says Gallup. That’s why choosing the right people to promote is crucial. Yet companies get it wrong more than 80% of the time.

First published in 1999 and updated several times since, authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, famed leaders in HR and management thinking, explain what separates managers who get the best from their people from those who don’t.

Drawing on 25 years of research, they address two key questions: What do the best employees need from the workplace, and how do the best managers find, focus, and keep talented employees?

These are questions every HR professional should ask and, after reading this best-of-HR book, be able to answer.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t 

Good to Great by Jim Collins

More than 4 million copies have been sold since it was first published 20 years ago. In the book, Jim Collins describes how several average, “good” companies made the transition to great companies and why other good companies failed.

Over the course of five years, Collins and his team of researchers analyzed the good-to-great companies and compared them against the merely good to explain what it takes to make the leap. From the case studies, the book distills seven characteristics that emphasize company culture and the role of HR and company leadership in hiring and promoting the best people.

As one HR leader commented, “Jim Collins reminds us all to not settle for mediocre teams, business practices, or results.”

HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources

HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources by Dave Ulrich

What are the competencies needed to manage an efficient and effective HR department? That’s what this book is all about. It was written by HR thought leader and professor Dave Ulrich, in collaboration with Jon Younger, Wayne Brockbank, and Mike Ulrich, his colleagues at RBL Group, the HR consultancy he founded.

From years of research, the book lists six key HR competencies: Strategic Positioner, Credible Activist, Change Champion, HR Innovator and Integrator, Capability Builder, and Technology Proponent. 

The book teaches these competencies to show their effect on an organization’s human capital. It also includes a chapter with real-life case studies and examples. 

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

This is the book that gave primacy to inspiration as the most effective path to motivation and talent management. First published in 2009, Simon Sinek pointed to Dr. Martin Luther King, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs, and Apple to make the case that getting the best out of people and creating a powerful company culture begins with giving them a sense of purpose — the “why” — before communicating the “how” and “what.”

Sinek’s TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” based on the book, is one of the top five TED talks with more than 28 million views. His second book in the “Why” trilogy, Leaders Eat Last, was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller.

The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers and Human Resources Professionals

The HR Answer Book: An Indispensable Guide for Managers by Shawn Smith and Rebecca Mazin

Although it’s oriented toward U.S. laws and practices, the HR Answer Book is one of the best human resources books for solving problems. Authors Shawn Smith and Rebecca Mazin provide clear and specific advice on more than 200 of the most common HR management issues. Consider it the essential HR handbook.

The topics include recruitment and hiring, downsizing, discipline, training, compensation and benefits, and performance and evaluations. The latest edition has bonus lists and forms covering performance goals checklists, questions to ask before an interview, and exit interview questionnaires.

The book is approved for recertification by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Work Rules!: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock

If there is one name in human resources that every HR professional knows, or should know, it’s Laszlo Bock. As senior vice president of people operations at Google, he presided over the expansion of the company’s workforce from 6,000 to 76,000 globally.

Laszlo Bock pioneered the use of HR analytics in a broad area of workforce management and recruiting. He famously declared interview brainteaser questions like how many golf balls fit in a plane “a complete waste of time” with no predictive hiring value. He helped move the nascent field of people analytics to the forefront of human resources decision-making, showing how it should inform HR strategies.

In Work Rules!, a book that belongs on every best HR books list, Bock explains how he and Google used Big Data to build a culture of innovation. He goes beyond Google to explain how every HR professional can use data to make better decisions on everything from hiring to team organization and promotions.

This book, too, is approved for recertification by the Society for Human Resource Management.

SSR’s Picks:

The next two books about human resources should be required reading for every HR practitioner even if they never appear on a list of the top human resource management books. We recommend adding them to your reading list.

HR From the Heart: Inspiring Stories and Strategies for Building the People Side of Great Business 

HR From the Heart: Inspiring Stories and Strategies for Building the People Side of Great Business by Libby Sartain

HR From the Heart may be even more relevant today than it was in 2003. With so much change coming so fast in how companies must manage, Libby Sartain’s book is a reminder to HR professionals that their first duty is to the well-being of their workforce.

Written by Sartain with Martha Finney, it draws on Sartain's 13 years as VP of People at Southwest Airlines, which was renowned (in 2003, when the book was originally published) for its workplace culture and its positive effect on employee performance.

The book unabashedly promotes the human side of HR, showing how to create a world-class organization by supporting the individual while connecting them to corporate goals.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink

A decade after Dan Pink’s book became a bestseller, managers and more than a few HR professionals still believe that money is a primary motivator. Drive puts the lie to rest.

To be sure, compensation is important. But as Pink points out, once a worker is paid enough to be comfortable, more money alone doesn’t get an equivalent boost in performance. What motivates us are intrinsic rewards such as autonomy (control over our work), mastery (the desire to improve and learn), and purpose (the connection between what they are doing and some bigger goal). 

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