HLRTT – What is the Purpose of HR

These are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest Leadership Think Tank (HRLTT) held on Tuesday 26th April, hosted by Workday’s Mandy Jeffery (Senior Director, People, EMEA/APAC), and titled ‘What is the purpose of HR?’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under ‘Chatham House Rules’.

With the rapid advances in technology, the changes in consumer habits, and the new demands of the workforce, are businesses geared to make the most of the opportunity this change and disruption presents, and if so, what role does HR as a function and profession have to play in this?


What are the business looking for from their HR function?

  • Getting the basics right
    • Ensuring all people processes are robust, consistent and efficient
    • Ensuring anyone within the business can access the information they need quickly and easily
    • Shifting towards more self-service and empowering employees and managers to support themselves
  • Influencing the shape and future direction of the business
    • Building leadership capability
      • This a somewhat controversial topic however it was concluded that there is a critical role for HR in holding leadership and management teams accountable and creating a strong leadership culture.
      • Where we were unable to reach a consensus however was in regards what approach is appropriate in situations where negative performance and/or behaviour has been identified. Should HR simply accept and repair the damage, blow the whistle, or constructively challenge leaders directly?
    • Defining culture and driving engagement
      • It is seen as a key role of the HR leader (exemplified by the emergence of job titles such as Chief Experience Officer) to partner with the leadership team to define and create the culture
      • This has to be authentic and needs to be lived and breathed by everyone starting right from the top – it is a critical role for HR to ensure that the culture pervades all levels of the organisation
      • Co-creation of EVP – customers are shifting to consumers and so the whole business needs to be behind building a culture which filters through the veins of the entire organisation, internally and externally, so each employee is responsible for this and for talent
      • Transparency is at the heart of this – millennials (more on this later…) in particular crave openness and want to know what direction the business is moving in and be explicitly clear about how their role contributes to the overall purpose, mission and vision of the organisation
    • Organisation Design / Development
      • Interpreting overall business strategy and working with leaders to ensure that the operating model of the business is fit for purpose, both current and future
      • Ensuring that there is a clear roadmap and then being accountable for making sure that the entire business remains aligned to this
  • Enabler and facilitator of change
    • The definition of enabler and facilitator are key here – the role of HR is not to categorically make the decisions on overall strategy, it is more about asking the right questions, being willing to challenge, and aligning the perspectives of all members of the leadership team to ensure a common goal that everyone is truly committed to
    • From there it is about supporting leadership and management to deliver required change and transformation in an appropriate way to maintain engagement and productivity – again, to be clear, it is not about delivering every aspect of the change, it is about enablement and facilitation
    • Building acceptance that change is a daily occurrence in the current world and removing the negative connotations that are typically associated with the word change and ensuring change is delivered in a clear, consistent and sustainable manner
  • Talent Management
    • Ensuring the right people are in the right place at the right time, and that they have all the skills, tools and resources to do their job as effectively as possible
    • Eliciting a shift away from traditional succession planning, high potential programmes etc. which can drive unhelpful human behaviour, internal competitiveness and unrealistic expectations.
    • Move towards a focus on real time capability, outcome focus and cultural alignment


How can HR position itself to meet business needs and truly add value.

  • Removing the ‘them and us’ stigma
    • HR is a key business function much like any other – it’s there to work in partnership with the business…! It seems that we spend a lot of time trying to justify our existence instead of focusing on opportunity to add value – it’s about having the right mindset and perspective
    • This is particularly critical when it comes to Recruitment and Talent Management – it is not solely HR’s job to Recruit and manage Talent, it’s everyone’s, however we need to instil that philosophy and hold people to account for it
  • You are not a fixer – if someone says jump, don’t ask how high!
    • It is not the job of HR (nor any other function for that matter) to simply fix stuff. Whilst resolving key issues is a fundamental requirement the starting point should be critically evaluating situations / challenges / objectives and asking great questions rather than automatically trying to solve them – often the person/s you are talking to has the answers, you simply need to draw it out of them and equip and empower them to then deliver the solution
  • Facilitate the creation of a great culture
    • Employees are your customers / consumers – huge investment goes into the customer journey however how many companies can say they invest the same time, money and resource in building and employee journey. In today’s world, everyone who comes into contact with your organisation – what can you do to challenge this?
  • Critically evaluate the leadership team and culture that exists
    • Do leaders get the HR they deserve? The consensus was that the more line management take responsibility for their people, the more HR are free to step up and have strategic influence and impact – it’s on us to empower the business to step up, and then hold them accountable if we want to create the room for us to influence and be more strategic
  • Ask great questions  
    • Question everything but do so in a curious / inquisitive way rather than being obnoxious – it’s all about the intent of your questioning
    • A fantastic example that came up was to ask leaders and managers that if they were paying employees out of their own pocket, who would they be happy to pay? If the answer is not 100% then what does that say…?
  • Provide insight
    • The first key thing here is about ensuring we know what questions we are trying to answer in the first place, and then critically evaluating whether these are the right questions to ask – if they are not the right questions then what’s the point in answering them and what value are you adding by doing so?!
    • You can follow on from this by shifting from a scorecard approach to actually focusing on what the insights from a scorecard (or any other set of data) are – look at and learn how to fully analyse and make robust suggestions from reliable data – what does the data suggest should be done moving forward, not just what it’s telling you about right here right now
    • Embrace analytics (and technology) – we have a wealth of information at our fingertips which can be delivered in real time, however we need to continually be learning how to interpret and use this information – take responsibility for continually upskilling yourself
  • Be consistent and predictable
    • Again a controversial one in terms of the connotations however ultimately a key way to build trust and credibility is by doing what you said you were going to do, and getting it done when you said it would be done by


Further food for thought

  • Fragmenting workforces
    • How does HR balance the needs of the aspirational individuals to those who are content with their consistent, comfortable day to day role and then balance this with the needs of the business?
    • The ‘high flyers’ and the ‘steady eddies’ are both equally critical to an organisation’s success in their own ways
    • A blanket approach to employees no longer cuts it, it’s providing the tools to allow each employee to develop their own career and skill set and instilling value in each role. How do we balance the needs, expectations and priorities of everyone to achieve the best collective result
  • Millennials…. (more to come on this topic in our next HRLTT)
    • This is more of a mindset than an age – for some reason lots of people classify millennials as those born after 1980 however does it really have anything to do with age…? We would argue not, it is more about about a mindset and way of working
    • Millennials (the way of thinking, not the age group) and technology have accelerated the fragmentation of the workforce and created whole new ways of working – how can we harness this to achieve maximum engagement and productivity
  • Changing world of work
    • Work and home life seem to becoming ever more integrated (or blurred) – we need to be continually shifting to an outcome-focused, feedback rich environment



So have we ultimately answered the question of ‘What is the Purpose of HR?’…. The answer is probably not. The biggest point I took away though is remembering that it is not our job as HR to simply wait and be told something is broken and then fix it, without any further analysis of why it broke in the first place. Operating in this fashion is what creates a situation when you become subservient which in turn greatly diminishes any opportunity to influence and add value.

We firmly believe that HR (even if it not called that moving forward) has an increasingly critical role to play in organisational health and if we can seize the opportunity, there are incredibly exciting times ahead, but only for those who adapt, evolve and continually challenge themselves and others around them.

I for one am inspired by the opportunity to contribute to all of the above, and to be involved with tackling some of the challenges outlined above and I hope you are too…

If you are then please do leave a comment, share this with your network and/or get involved with the HR Think Tank Series!

Franki Crosse

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Franki joined Oasis HR in January 2014 having graduated from Durham University in Geography & Politics. Following two promotions Franki is now a Senior Consultant on the permanent team with a focus on Generalist roles (HR Business Partners, Heads of HR, HR Directors). Prior to her London move Franki made the most of her 'gap 6-months' competing at British Dressage, travelling South East Asia and qualifying as a leader for the Ski Club of Great Britain. In her spare time she tries to juggle these things whilst making the most of what London has to offer!

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