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The 10 Most Important Functions of HR and People Ops

Understanding key HR functions can help employees partner with HR more effectively.

Leah Ward
10 years experience in HR, PeopleOps and scaling startup teams
October 11, 2022
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The scope of functions HR and People Operations include varies, with each effort uniquely influencing the health of an entire organization. Yet, many people question HR and People Ops’ value and impact on the business. Human Resource Executive reports, “40% of HR leaders feel challenged by the lack of importance/priority the company puts on the HR department.”

The ten functions outlined in this article establish the breadth and depth of HR management and People Operations professionals’ work, and how employees, managers, and executives can partner with HR to ensure their work is effective within the organization.

In This Article

Understanding The Value of HR

Over my own career, I became aware of the lingering distaste most people have toward their HR department. This frustration is often based on disappointment towards how HR has shown up in their experience as an employee. Maybe the HR professional they worked with lacked the ability to hold space for nuanced conversations. Maybe they were an overbearing paper pusher, or simply didn’t seem to have any material impact on an employee’s work environment.

Even when HR functions are executed well, employees may struggle to attest to what’s working, because HR’s impact often takes place behind the scenes. But employees actually do see HR’s impact on their overall work experience in a variety of ways. HR’s impact may be an understandable payroll system, plentiful employee benefits, transparent performance management conversations, or clear opportunities for training and development.

Effective HR can help ensure employees are engaged in the company’s mission for the long haul.

Employees who are engaged with their work

Understanding what exactly is included in the HR function can help employees, managers, and executives partner with HR more effectively. Acknowledging the breadth of HR management and People Operations can also help HR professionals better define their own roles. This allows members of a human resources department to prioritize functions that align with their interests and expertise.

While a small business can rely on an outsourced HR Consultant or an HR Manager that oversees all functions, larger organizations will require HR professionals to possess specific expertise. These can be specialists in payroll and benefits or learning and development, for example. These functions both fall under the umbrella of human resource management and People Operations, yet the skills needed to execute them successfully differ.

Keeping the various functions of HR in mind can help leaders think strategically about how they want to invest and build out the HR team over time.

1. Fostering Relationships Between the Company and Employees

First Impression - Onboarding

Often, the first person a new employee will interact with at a company is an HR Professional. This interaction sets the stage for not only the relationship between the employee and HRM, but the employee and the organization as a whole, including the company culture. For example, if HR has built a robust onboarding program, new employees will be confident in their initial output and managers will be relieved at not having to figure out onboarding alone. This positive experience gives the employees and managers confidence in not only their work, but the overall success of the organization.

The steps of onboarding a new employee.

Ongoing Employee Relationship Management

Throughout the employee lifecycle, HR continues to manage employee relations. Bamboo HR proposes that employee relations, “... refers to an organization’s efforts to create and maintain a positive relationship with its employees. By maintaining positive, constructive employee relations, organizations hope to keep employees loyal and more engaged in their work.”

One way HR professionals may support employee relations is through employee recognition programs. Having your work ignored or not recognized can be demoralizing, and leads to low morale overall. HR professionals who implement robust employee recognition programs can help make sure employees know their hard work is appreciated.

“Employee recognition is a practice where employees' efforts, contributions, and achievements are publicly acknowledged,'' shares Gerald Ainomugisha for Select Software Reviews, noting benefits such as increased productivity, employee engagement higher levels of collaboration, and better overall mental health for the workforce. With all these benefits, investing in an Employee Recognition platform may be worth considering

2. Maintaining Legal Records, Tax Compliance, and Payroll

When most people think of HR, they think of paperwork. This association is understandable, as hiring and employment can be complicated. Especially since, as Forbes reports, “Remote work is a permanent fixture,” which means HR professionals will continue to navigate the complicated nature of distributed workforces and multiple labor laws.

Ensuring compliance with local, state, and federal employment laws is essential for businesses to avoid fines, fees, and lawsuits. A primary responsibility of HR professionals is to ensure employees are informed of their rights and company policies. Simultaneously, it is HR’s prerogative to certify that companies fulfill their legal duties and obligations to their employees from the hiring process to the end of their engagement.

HR workers take care of legal compliance.

Small to midsize businesses may choose to partner with a Professional Employer Organization to ensure compliance and gain access to discounted benefits and perks. Even with this support, most organizations will still need some level of internal oversight as the employee base grows.

Larger organizations will usually reach a point where payroll and benefits are managed in-house, ensuring more customization and control.

3. Orchestrating Performance Management Across The Organization

Aligning the work of employees with the goals of the company is a constant effort across the organization. HR and People Operations are tasked with supporting that effort through performance management. There are many different strategies and approaches to managing performance, and every organization will have a unique philosophy on what kind of performance they value and how to reward it.

Execution of this philosophy usually involves implementing a Performance Management system and communicating expectations and training to employees. HR professionals can create systems of accountability, allowing them to catch biases and unfair feedback before it becomes an issue across the organization.

Equipping employees and managers alike with best practices around delivering feedback in performance appraisal, documenting performance, and communicating expectations go a long way toward successful performance across the organization. The manner in which an organization conducts performance management also affects its employer brand, which can greatly impact the success of its recruitment process.

4. Keeping Employees Engaged and Informed

Without adequate information, employees are left in a lurch — a surefire way of fostering poor job satisfaction and labor relations. It’s difficult to make decisions and collaborate when there’s a lack of transparency across the organization. If management and HR don’t partner together to share relevant updates on the company’s needs, and create opportunities for employees to give feedback, their workforce may become disillusioned, confused, and disengaged.

Gallup observes that, “...engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees -- across industry, company size and nationality, and in good economic times and bad.”

While leaders desire to foster high employee engagement, they often rely on their HR department to provide insight on how to do so. SHRM notes, “To foster a culture of engagement, HR should lead the way in the design, measurement, and evaluation of proactive workplace policies and practices that help attract and retain talent with skills and competencies necessary for growth and sustainability.”

HR workers share information with employees.

When a company is composed of less than 50 people, HR and People Operations teams-of-one can communicate quickly and effectively. This is because HR professionals can personally connect with each employee as one of their main functions. As the organization grows, communication becomes more complex and human resource management may need to work together with internal communications teams. AIHR observes, “While taking care of effective communication towards employees is one of the key functions of Human Resources, there is a difference between spreading people-related information only and implementing a full-on internal communications strategy.”

5. Implementing Competitive Benefits, Perks, and Rewards Programs

Employee Benefits and Perks

In the current job market, employees have a lot of employers to choose from! A key strategy in attracting and retaining talent is offering a competitive benefits package.

The Balance points out, “There are some types of employee benefits that are mandated by federal or state law, including minimum wage, overtime, leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, unemployment, and workers' compensation and disability insurance. There are other types of employee benefits that companies are not required to offer but may choose to provide to their employees. There are also some benefits and perks you may be able to negotiate as part of your compensation package when you've been offered a new job.”

Most HR and People Ops professionals will survey their network to benchmark offerings and get new ideas for benefits and perks to pitch to their executive team. Soliciting feedback from employees is essential to crafting a benefits and perks offering that reflects and meets the needs of a company’s unique employee base. Running an employee benefits survey can give People Ops and HR teams direct insight into what their workforce values and how to meet those needs.

The early-stage or bootstrapped companies may not be able to offer the same benefits and perks as a large, established organization like Google, but thoughtfully listening to the needs of employees and developing specific programs can ensure these startups are still able to attract and retain top talent.

Rewards and Recognition

We touched on recognition earlier when we discussed relationship management, but it’s also an important aspect of how employees perceive the company values their effort. The rewards allocated for employee performance can be non-monetary, a fiscal or physical bonus, or a combination of these things.

Either way, a formalized reward program with tangible incentives is an effective way to motivate employees, and to acknowledge the value they add.

Statistics about employee recognition.

6. Developing Employees Through Training and Upskilling

When considering a new role or function at an organization, leaders may be confronted with a complicated question. Should they invest in hiring new headcount, or should they train current employees into the role?

Hiring may seem like the easier route, but Investopedia points out, “It's easy to forget that the cost of taking on a new employee means more than just their salary, which can be substantial all by itself. But once you factor in the cost of recruiting, training, and more, the dollars start adding up.”

A robust learning & development strategy can help ensure employees grow within the organization itself. Too often, organizations neglect the development and training of their workforce, leaving employees frustrated with new hires and disenchanted with their managers. HR can help remedy this issue by creating opportunities for personal and professional growth throughout the employee lifecycle.

Whiteboard for employee training.

Organizations on a tight budget may implement a mentorship program, or larger organizations may use a Learning Management System to share and create custom learning journeys. Alternatively, HR leaders may notice a cohort of individual contributors moving into management roles and enlist the help of an external trainer to facilitate a management training program.

Beyond the usual required training, HR teams can equip the workforce with tools and education to be future-ready.

7. Aligning the workforce with the company’s goals

“Workforce planning is the process of analyzing and strategizing for a company’s current and future workforce needs based on their goals and vision for the future.” explains Tim Reitsma, co-founder and General Manager of People Managing People.

Frontline managers may have ideas of what positions they need to open and fill or what personnel needs to be let go, but no clue what budget, resources, or tools they can use in that process. HR can help facilitate collaboration by standardizing input from managers and leaders within their respective departments. The HR team can then organize that information for easy decision-making within the executive team.

AIHR outlines the elements of strategic workforce planning, and how HR teams can help solve issues uncovered by a gaps analysis. By identifying the high-level position of the company and overall strategy, the implications for the functions and headcount needed in the workforce become more obvious.

The elements of strategic workforce planning.

8. Acting as The Champion for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

“As a people function, HR practitioners can no longer be effective without themselves becoming DEI proficient,” Mikaela Kiner, CEO of Reverb, points out in Forbes. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion cannot be the responsibility of HR alone, although these professionals should instill equitable policies and inclusive practices to help create a diverse workforce. Commitment to DEI must be driven by founders, instilled in hiring practices, and interwoven into talent development.

There are lots of ways HR teams can start to support DEI, along with initiatives like starting employee resource groups (ERGs). HR can act as change-makers and advocates within their organization. A significant part of this is diagnosing inequities in compensation and representation, and making tactical plans to address those inequities. HR’s commitment to DEI is paramount to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce.

9. Coaching and Supporting Employees, Managers, and Executives

Individuals often find themselves in HR, Talent, or People Operations roles because of a genuine desire to help people and contribute to the success of others within an organization. That support is usually applied through company-wide programs, communication, and events, but also may be applied through individual coaching.

BambooHR notes, “In a coaching capacity, HR goes beyond simply sharing how a manager’s behavior impacts others—they become a partner in focusing specifically on a manager’s development. One-on-one coaching can help leaders manage stress, improve conflict resolution, and achieve personal or business goals.”

Managers may struggle with who they can talk to about problems they are facing alongside their employees. From time to time they may also need a thought partner for a challenging management situation. HR professionals can offer a listening ear, guidance, and resources to ensure managers have the tools they need to manage their teams successfully.

Managers motivate employees in the office.

10. Facilitating the Workplace Experience

For years, maintaining the office environment was a standard component of HR’s responsibilities. With many in the workforce moving to remote work, those responsibilities have expanded to include initiatives that encompass hybrid and fully remote workforces.

Officernd observes, “Workplace experience is the sum of all touchpoints employees have with the workplace environment. This environment includes three components — the physical office, digital workplace, and the workforce — as well as the relationship between them.”

Crafting an attractive workplace experience helps companies attract and hire talent searching for companies they can thrive in. These efforts go a long way towards rewarding and retaining the current workforce.

Some Last Thoughts on HR Functions

With the weight of these functions, it’s obvious that HR teams carry a significant workload. This workload, paired with a lack of appreciation and resources, may explain why 98% of HR professionals report feeling burned out.

Forbes notes the stressors recently hitting HR, saying, “Although it isn’t part of their job description, [HR] had to serve as de facto therapists, cheerleaders and leaders to maintain morale. These tasks were in addition to their core mission of recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retaining employees. They’ve had to make tough decisions around keeping a remote policy or enacting a hybrid or in-office model. No matter the choices, there will be people unhappy that they can’t get exactly what they want.”

Acknowledging burnout is the first step to overcoming it. Executives can help prevent burnout within their HR teams by recognizing the integral work HR is doing to move companies forward, and ensuring those efforts are recognized, rewarded, and validated across the organization. With more awareness of the varied responsibilities HR takes on, executives and managers can have clear conversations about what HR encompasses within their organization, and within an HR professional’s specific role.

With adequate investment and resources, HR teams act as a force multiplier to the organization’s efforts and effectiveness, ensuring success for both employees and the company as a whole.

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Leah Ward

Leah Ward has 10 years of experience building and scaling people programs and company infrastructure at startups. She was the Chief of Staff & Head of People at Teampay before she founded Seedling Stage, where she equips early-stage companies with foundational HR policies and processes. When she’s not geeking out over all things People Ops, you can find her sipping tea and watching cat videos.

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