Renaming human resources: People operations or team culture?

LAST REVIEWED Apr 03 2019 8 MIN READ

By Liz Sheffield

We received a question from a reader that we want to explore here on the Human Interest blog.

HR has fallen out of vogue in terms of titles for millennials and in Silicon Valley; even people whose jobs are truly Human Resources based prefer to call themselves "People Operations" or "Team Culture" professionals. Why is this? Is there actually a difference in the job function?

To answer this important question, let’s first look at the origins of the name Human Resources. According to Wikipedia, in 1893 the economist John R. Commons first used the term "human resource" in his book, The Distribution of Wealth. The term was used again in the early 1900s as “the notion that workers could be seen as a kind of capital asset” became popular. Human Resources became more widely used in the 19th century, reportedly due to misunderstandings between employers and their workforce.

So, why are (some of) today’s HR professionals calling themselves by another name?

Human “resources” isn’t the friendliest term

I’ve always had some resistance to the term human resources, as well as the term human capital. Both of these imply that people are "resources" that are to be used—just like a machine, or another commodity. For a profession that is all about people, the term might feel awkward or inappropriate for people in this line of work—especially those who are from a younger generation and have new expectations and understandings about the role people (not widgets) play in an organization’s success.

The term HR doesn’t reflect the current business landscape

Today’s business environment is rapidly changing, and HR is adapting and becoming more agile to meet those changes. As such, the "management" of resources in the form of people no longer applies. In an article published by Forbes article, HR analyst Josh Bersin describes this new role well:

“If your HR and Learning programs are focused on building customer-centric teams, empowering managers and people to make decisions, encouraging a culture of learning, teaching managers to coach and develop others - then you have moved to the Agile Model for HR. If your HR programs are still focused heavily on enforcing the rules, formalizing structure and centers of power, and putting leaders on a pedestal, then your HR and employee programs are probably holding your company back.”

Based on this assessment by Bersin, I believe that the companies which are focused on empowering people and creating great, productive work environments may be more likely to use a new term (such as Team Culture) to describe the function historically known as Human Resources.

HR leaders are claiming their seat at the table

In some organizations, the HR function or role hasn’t previously been seen as “business critical.” It’s seen as a “cost center” which drains the bottom line rather than making a contribution. Today’s HR leaders have been taking steps to change that perception.

What should I call myself and my department?

Here are my two cents.

Identify what you want your title(s) to communicate:

Traditional “Human Resources”:

Is the HR approach in your organization more formal – with primary focus on systems and procedures? If so, stick with the more common HR terminology—and choose titles that reflect that approach, for example Chief Human Resource Officer.

People Operations:

Adopting a new name, such as People Operations, is one way to send a message to other business leaders that the role the function plays is indeed critical to an organization’s success. It’s not just the group that plans parties and hands out awards…it’s the group that enables and empowers people to get the work they need to do done.

Culture Department:

For an organization that’s focused on empowering people and creating a great work environment, the word culture evokes those qualities. It’s less about enforcing and establishing guidelines, policies, and rules and more about creating a place where the vision and values drive behavior.

Including “Office” in the title:

If you’re looking for a title that is focused primarily on administrative duties or planning company events, include the word office in your title. It’s also a title that works well for the person who is “handling other duties as assigned” (including HR tasks) for a small business.

Including “Engagement” in the title:

This title infers that HR monitors, manages, and is ultimately responsible for the level of engagement employees have with the organization. That is a slippery slope. Yes, HR is a key player in employee engagement, but in truth engagement is everyone’s responsibility -- leaders, managers, and employees alike.

Once you have a core definition identified, your other titles fall into place within a hierarchy and using that same nomenclature (E.g., VP of People Operations, Director of People Operations, and so on):

  • The VP handles high-level decisions and strategic decisions

  • The Director oversees a team of people to put your programs and policies in place

  • The Manager focuses on day-to-day execution of the function

  • The Specialist or Associate serves as your frontline HR employee, responsible for handling frontline tasks and answering questions about policies and procedures

  • The Coordinator handles administrative details and keeps the department organized

The short answer: I'm a writer and an “HR” specialist, so I believe there's great power in words…especially the words we use to describe ourselves and the work we do. If moving away from the term Human Resources helps professionals in the HR function deliver better business results, organize as a more effective structure, and provide the support and services employees need, I'm all for it.

But don’t use an edgier name just to be cute. Be sure that the nomenclature you choose has meaning, and accurately describes what you do in an easy-to-understand manner. The differences between Chief People Officer vs. Chief HR Officer vs. Chief Culture Officer don’t mean anything if people can’t understand what it is that you do or what value you deliver to the organization.

Recommended further reading: SHRM vs. HRCI Certification Comparison

Liz Sheffield has more than a decade of experience working in HR. Her areas of expertise are in training and development, leadership development, ethics, and compliance.

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