18 Key Human Resources Roles

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What are the key roles of human resources? In this article, we will list the 18 key Human Resources roles. In addition, we will go over these roles and explain how doing them right will create benefits for both the people and the organization.

Background of Human Resource Roles

For a long time, Human Resources Management (HRM) has been viewed as a cost to be minimized. This fit into the traditional view of HRM as a caretaker for the business. Employees needed to be managed at (preferably) low cost. In line with this, HR was seen as a potential source for efficiency gains (Becker & Gerhart, 1996).

This meant in practice that if companies were able to save time and money managing their personnel, they would save money. There wasn’t much focus on the effectiveness of HR.

But if you don’t see an HR department as something that adds value, why would you focus on the value that it added?

In the late nineties, this idea started to change. Research indicated that HR decisions could influence organizational performance. This research was done by assessing the sophistication of the HR architecture and relating it to business performance.

The following figure, by Huselid and Becker (1995) shows this impact. As the HR architecture becomes more sophisticated, the market value per employee increases.

Huselid and Becker: HR architecture and market value per employee

Once we know that HR practices increase organizational performance, the next question is: What are the key roles for HR? And (how) do these roles lead to superior performance? That’s what we will explore in the remainder of this article.

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18 Key Human Resources Roles

The roles we will list in this article are all high-performance work practices. This means that HR adds value if these practices, or roles, are realized. The roles are based on an updated version of Becker & Gerhart‘s summary of decades of HR research. Let’s go over them one by one.

1. Attracting candidates

When hiring an external candidate, attracting prospective employees is crucial. This happens through employer branding, in which the company promotes itself in the job market. This can be measured through the selection ratio, which is the ratio of candidates hired divided by the total number of candidates. It is up to HR to make sure that sufficient eligible candidates are attracted and eventually the right people are hired.

Hiring the right people involves employment testing, also known as selecting, another key Human Resources role.

2. Selecting Candidates

Selecting is the responsibility of HR to test how suitable candidates are for a job. Although this is something that is often outsourced to professional testing-providers, the process should be managed by HR.

While vendors will try to sell you all kinds of assessments (of course), scientific literature shows that only a few are truly effective. These include IQ tests, work test, conscientiousness tests, the structured interview, and assessment by colleagues.

You will find a brief overview of these measures below. For a full overview, check Schmidt & Hunter’s 1998 paper with a full overview of personnel measures.

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Schmidt & Hunter's personnel measures and their % of predicted performance

3. Hiring from Within and from Outside 

Hiring is one of the key Human Resources roles. An important distinction is that between hiring from outside vs. hiring from within. Through employee training and smart succession planning, companies can create a so-called talent pipeline.

Internal hiring is preferred as it enables a company to fill jobs with internal talent that already knows the company and is ready for a challenge. A lot of companies can improve their internal hiring practices. If the right talent isn’t available internally, HR needs to hire external talent.

4. Performance Appraisals

Employees are tested to make sure that they will perform to the best of their ability in their new role. Performance appraisal also called performance review or evaluation is a method to evaluate the job performance of the employee. In most companies, this is an annual or bi-annual event.

These appraisals facilitate communication between employee and manager, enhance the employee’s focus, help in setting professional and personal goals, improves performance, and help in determining training needs.

Although the performance appraisal cycle is something that a lot of employees and managers are unhappy with, it still is a very effective tool to improve results when done right.

Although it seems to be in fashion, getting rid of appraisals is not the solution. Increasingly, companies are opting to go for more continuous feedback as an alternative, which may have some merit. However, an official moment to review performance is still widely considered a best practice and one of the key roles for HR.

5. Compensation

Fair compensation is a key Human Resource Management role. Work is not done for free – it is governed by a legal contract and by a social contract between the worker and the employee. Both contracts need to be managed. Compensation that is perceived as fair will motivate employees to do their best and to stay with the company. In our article on HR best practices, we explain compensation in a lot more detail.

6. Employee Benefit Management

Employees work for more than just pay. Creating the right benefits for employees is crucial in retaining key talent.

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We know from the literature that at a certain point extra pay doesn’t make employees happier. However, the right benefits might. Common benefits are extra holidays, a learning and development budget, extra paternity leave, a childcare budget, et cetera.

The easiest way to select the right benefits for your employees is to just ask them. Some employees value learning and development, others look for extra pension plans, and a third group may want company-organized childcare.

By accommodating these needs, HR can create tremendous value for individual employees that leads to increased motivation, satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

7. Learning & Development

Learning and development activities as well as high-impact leadership development contribute to building relevant skills within the workforce. This involves upskilling the workforce in skills that align with organizational goals and the changing context of people’s jobs. Learning and development activities often align with employees’ personal development plans as well as with the core capabilities that the organization is building.

Activities include formal training, enabling on-the-job learning, job rotation to provide people with broader work experience, and providing challenging assignments (e.g., in problem solving groups) that help solve organizational issues while also contributing to individual learning.

8. Promotions

In line with hiring from within, setting rules for promotion is also one of the responsibilities of HR. Promotions are usually based on merit and/or seniority. They are part of an effective succession planning and are a great way to retain top performers who are eager to learn and develop themselves.

It is up to HR to put in place procedures that enable the internal movement of talent through promotions. Promotions should not be handed purely based on current performance but should also account for predicted future performance.

This is illustrated by the Peter Principle, which states that people tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. This relates to the idea that good performers will always be promoted until they reach a function in which they stop being good performers. They then have become incompetent in their new function and will be stuck there for the rest of their career.

15-key-human-resources-roles

9. Problem-Solving Groups 

Problem-Solving Groups, also known as quality circles, are teams of employees who are actively involved in problem-solving. Groups are composed of volunteers that meet a few hours every week or two to look at productivity and quality problems. These groups have a special type of leader or facilitator. HR can help in the creation of these groups, ensure optimum team composition, and plays a role in facilitating these teams to make an impact.

10. Total Quality Management 

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a more structured approach to quality circles. TQM is an organization-wide effort to create a climate in which employees continuously improve their ability to provide products and services that customers will find valuable. Here HR is one of the co-owners of this process, especially when it comes to people practices.

11. Information Sharing

HR has a central place in sharing information with employees. This can be via a simple newsletter to keep everyone up to date with the latest. It also entails work safety procedures, announcements of layoffs, mergers, or acquisitions, or any other impactful event that is relevant for employees.

Clear, transparent, and timely information sharing is crucial in building and maintaining support and successful organizational change.

Another key aspect of information sharing is internal knowledge sharing.

This is often referred to as know-how (experience), know-what (knowledge), and know-who (finding the person to help solve the problem). These three elements are crucial to solving problems quickly and effectively.

HR has a key role in facilitating this as well, especially in large organizations.

12. Organizational Development 

Organizational development revolves around interventions to make the organization more effective. Techniques include job analysis and job design but also macro-level activities such as organizational change and organizational design processes.

The most tangible OD process in HR is arguably job analysis. Whenever a new job is created (or when an old job opens up), the first step to hiring the right person is to define what the ‘right person’ should look like. This is done in the job analysis.

Job design is similar to job analysis. Any job should have a variety of skills and tasks. In addition, a job should be significant and the holder of the job should have a degree of autonomy.

Job design is related to job rotation, job enlargement (giving more responsibilities to the employee), and job enrichment (increasing the employee’s autonomy over their work).

The job design processes are part of organizational development, a key HR role

Organizational change and design are macro-level interventions that will affect the entire organization. Here again, the OD or organizational effectiveness unit will provide key input and design HR interventions that will help to achieve the change and build a more effective organization. This is another key HR role.

13. Survey Management

The annual engagement survey is one of the most recognizable HR efforts in an organization. Surveying the attitudes of employees helps to understand where the organization is at, what the attitudes of employees are, and how productivity can be improved through better people management. We explain how to measure employee engagement in this more specialized article.

We believe, however, that HR’s role is broader than simply putting out attitude surveys. HR should own survey management in general. All data points collected through any survey should be aligned before being sent out – and should be collected in a central database. This will enable HR to more accurately manage employee attitudes and the employee’s voice and reduces survey fatigue.

14. Compliance Management

Compliance management includes handling grievance procedures and conflict resolution.

Grievance procedures have never been more relevant as shown by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #metoo movement. HR has a crucial role in handling grievance procedures and spotting, making though decisions, and resolving issues early on instead of letting them fester for years. In cases of reported or suspected abuse, theft, misusing company funds or time, and other unethical behavior, HR is in the lead to resolve this.

Conflict resolution is another part of compliance management. Spotting conflicts early on and resolving them swiftly and effectively pays a tremendous dividend in the long term. Successfully resolving conflicts is the final key responsibility of HR.

Best practices are to have predefined structures in place, communicate everything in writing, and, if possible, apply mediation to solve problems in an amicable way.

15. Business Partnering

Another key role for HR is business partnering. HR is a partner of the business and helps by providing tactical and strategic advice. According to Ulrich et al., 2017, “HR professionals need to be an equal partner in setting the direction for the organization and getting it moving in the right direction”.

Becoming a successful business partner requires a strategic mindset, understanding the internal business and external business context, as well as being a trusted advisor of line managers and senior management.

16. Data & Analytics Management

Data management is one of the latest HR roles to be added. It encompasses the ability to make data-driven decisions, characterized by the ability to read, understand, create, and communicate data and information and influence decision making.

This role involves the ability to work with metrics and KPIs, the ability to conduct data analysis (also known as people analytics) and create dashboards, and translate these insights into actions.

17. HR Technology Management

Technology management is also a newer role. Emerging in the ’90s, it is aimed at enabling efficient HR practices and realizing the HR strategy through technology. Also known as digital HR, it is enabling a better employee journey and helps to integrate HR practices.

For example, the applicant tracking system can now connect with the company’s learning management system (LMS). As soon as the new hire starts their LMS, it prompts the courses that the person should work on to be better in the new role they just started. This helps to greatly increase HR’s impact.

18. Change Management

Last but not least, there is change management. In today’s globalized and competitive environment, organizations are in a constant state of flux. Managing this constant change is key to being competitive in today’s landscape.

Of specific interest is organizational culture. Shaping a desirable culture that enables the organization to reach its goals has never been more important. Here again, HR plays a crucial role in defining the culture, enabling leadership to lead by example, reinforcing the culture through people practices like performance management, and by featuring and rewarding exemplary behavior.

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This brings us to the end of the overview with the 18 most commonly recognized Human Resources roles. When managed well, these high performing work practices will lead to motivated employees and superior organizational performance. This is what good Human Resource Management is all about: creating organizational value through engaged employees.

It goes without saying that these HR roles should align with each other. It is hard to hire the right people if you do not compensate them fairly. Or, you will run a big risk if you have a grievance procedure but can’t effectively resolve conflicts.

The greatest value will be created by bundling these roles into a streamlined whole.

To create a better overview of these roles, we have included an infographic. It shows the three categories of Human Resources Roles: Traditional HR responsibilities, production optimization, and managing employee attitudes.

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