“HR is only there to protect the company."
“What does HR even do?”
“Is that like being the Office Manager?”

There are two unfortunate truths about working in HR.

One is that there’s an incredible amount (and variety) of work to get done. Between emergency interruptions, crying sessions and impromptu questions about benefits, it can be tempting to go into dark mode just to get some actual work done.

Two, no one seems to know exactly what it is that you do. Like guests enjoying a great party, the little details of a good employee experience often go unseen. If you’ve ever worked your ass off crafting career plans, advocating for raises and coaching bad managers, only to be called “the fun police”, we see you.

While a lot of people-people do intentionally set out to study and practice HR, the field is also full of folks newly thrust into the role and finding their way. Maybe you come from an administrative or office management background, or are just a smart person who figures things out. Maybe one day someone handed you a file of employee contracts and said “this is your job”. What now? What are you supposed to be doing?

We’ve put together this guide as a high level overview of what HR does (or is supposed to do). At a startup or smaller organization, these could all be handled by one busy, multitasking person. At a larger organization, they may each be their own department. If you’re new to HR, considering it, or just want to give someone in your life an overview of what the hell it is HR does, this guide is for you.

So: what does HR do?

Some misconceptions about HR are that it doesn’t require a lot of skill or knowledge, is focused on culture and fluffy stuff, or that practitioners are strict rule enforcers who are there to protect the company (and screw you out of a raise). The role can get a bad rep. While there are certainly some old-school HR folks (and bad apples) out there, here’s what HR is actually there for:

  • Designing, building and running the systems, processes and services that help people collaborate, grow their skills, do good work, and generally have a positive time doing it. Fundamentally, good HR is about removing systemic stress (broken systems, wasted efforts, discrimination) from people’s life at work, and designing things that make it smoother
  • Measuring the success of those systems and how they’re impacting people. Then tweaking them accordingly
  • Keeping the company up to date on employment policy and compliance, so that no one gets hurt (or sued)
  • Administration of things like records, benefits, payroll and time off
  • Being an ear and a coach (with boundaries!)
  • Ensuring the company has a safe and inclusive environment. This means everything you build, from processes to policies, needs to be designed for everyone. It’s part of your job as a modern HR professional to have a strong awareness of diversity and inclusion and write, design and practice each area of HR with it in mind.
  • Being an employee advocate, and pushing back on decisions that don’t align with the company’s values or the best interest of its employees

Overall, HR is responsible for the experiences that make up what it’s like to work in an organization. The job is pretty broad, especially as a solo HR manager or generalist, but it can be broken down into a few key areas.

Hiring

Especially at smaller companies, HR is often responsible for recruitment. Hopefully, you’re not tasked with hiring 10+ new roles at a time while also tackling everything else HR (yikes), but here’s what you might do:

  • Write job descriptions
  • Design interview processes
  • Train interviewers on how to conduct a great interview
  • Implement and administrate Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software to make keeping track of candidates and the process a little easier
  • Interact with candidates through scheduling interviews, conducting screening calls or  hunting for passive candidates to approach
  • Work on recruitment marketing efforts, like building and maintaining a careers page, attending or sponsoring events or building rapport with communities your company wants to hire from
  • Help with making offers, including crafting the offer letter itself and acting as an agent and advocate throughout the negotiation process

Onboarding

Once offers are sent and signed, HR is often responsible for new employee onboarding, with the objective of getting them set up for success and to start to cultivate belonging. You’ll be tasked with creating and running a process orienting new staff to the company’s values, mission, policies, working norms, as well as the specifics of their team and role. If you’re looking for more advice on creating a great employee onboarding program, we’ve got a guide for that.

Depending on size of company, you may also be responsible for ordering equipment and setting up accounts, as well as scheduling learning sessions or meet and greets. Administratively, HR ensures contracts are taken care of and filed, and that the new hire is signed up for benefits, perks, payroll and other things they need.

Career Development and Performance Management

Once your new hires are settled, they’ll want to know: where is this going? As an HR pro, you’ll be responsible for designing and running the systems that help people grow their careers.

You’ll spend some time on job descriptions and career levels, especially for roles that have multiple folks in them, like engineering. Career levels (or skills matrices) outline what is expected at each level of seniority in a certain job – say, the difference between a junior and senior engineers. These are used to evaluate how people are performing against expectations. Many companies use performance reviews and promotions.

HR also creates and admins the performance review process, and often acts as a coach. You’ll be helping design the review process (who is being reviewed and by whom? what tools will we use? will folks get raises, or just feedback?), as well as providing guidance to people and managers on writing and delivering good feedback. You’ll probably also be responsible for any outcomes that come out of a review process, like updating someone’s salary or title, or getting them set up with any training needed for a new position.

A solid HR practitioner also works as an ongoing coach with the company’s managers, making sure they have the tools and skills they need to mentor, support and grow their team throughout the entire year, not just review season.

Compensation

You’ll touch pay (compensation) in a few areas. Generally, HR is responsible for conducting market salary research, using that research to create salary bands that align with the company’s pay philosophy and goals, and making sure those stay up to date in a changing market. If you’re involved in hiring, you’ll also help figure out what candidates should be offered, or even make and negotiate those offers yourself. You might also be responsible for running and administrating your company’s payroll systems.

Looking to dive further into compensation? Check out the Bright + Early Guide to Paying People.

Engagement and Culture

Employee engagement is the practice of measuring how happy and productive people are in their roles. Do they feel like they’re part of a community that cares about them? Do they think they have a bright future at the company? Are they working towards a greater purpose? Someone who is really engaged with their work (and their team) is going to stay longer, look out for opportunities to improve the organization, and overall do great work.

In HR, you’ll be responsible for measuring engagement and making recommendations to improve it. You’ll probably want to do an engagement survey on a regular cadence, checking in to see how satisfied people are with their working conditions, manager relationships, workload, pay, and other factors. Demographics are also important here. Are POC having a different work experience than other employees? Are all the longtime employees less engaged than the new ones?

As time goes on, you’ll be able to track trends and pinpoint any issues, as well as projects or processes you may need to build or improve. Aside from surveys, exit interviews, turnover and regular communication will give you information about how people are feeling at work.

At some companies, you’ll be responsible for party planning and other culture stuff, like team outings or rituals. Some people love doing this, and culture-only roles do exist at larger companies, but it shouldn’t be the bulk of your work as an HR generalist.

Policy, Compliance and Handbooks

It’ll be your job to make sure that your company has all the right employee policies in place, that they’re updated regularly as laws change and that they’re easily accessible. A good way to do that is to have a really great employee handbook. A proper handbook can be a celebrated cultural artifact, highlighting the company’s history, mission, values and working norms, along with its policies and how to’s. When do reviews happen? What tools does the company use? Put it all in the handbook.

Which policies you need will depend on your country and state/province, but overall you’ll want to consider covering things like harassment and discrimination, violence and bullying, equal opportunity and inclusion, privacy, conduct, and more. Some of these you can find online, but we highly recommend working with a qualified employment lawyer.

On the compliance side, things will vary based on your location, but you’ll need to be up to date on health and safety, accommodations for folks with disabilities, and other factors.

Benefits and Perks

You’ll be responsible for administrating and often choosing the health benefits plan your company offers, as well as any additional perks. Perks should align with what your company values. If you’re a fintech company that values bringing people financial freedom, try RRSP matching, or if you’re a travel company that attracts globetrotters, a travel stipend. You don’t need to offer something just because it sounds cool or because everyone else does.

You should be regularly checking in on how employees are using (and valuing) the benefits and perks you have. Try using the engagement survey to collect data on this, if you can’t get specific usage data.

Learning and Development

Learning and development is about building (or just curating) learning experiences for the team. On your end, this could include building out a budget for courses, conferences and books, bringing in guest speakers, or developing/signing up for things like management training, DEI training, feedback and communication training, and other things that help people level up.

Employee Relations

This is what most people think of when they think of HR- someone that employees can talk to. People will come to you with personal issues, work conflicts (see: The Bright + Early Guide to Work Fights), stuff they don’t want to tell their manager, really anything. A lot of people get into People roles for this exact reason– they love people and want to help them. It can be really rewarding to help someone turn a tough situation around! While it’s not your job to be a therapist, you can help direct them towards resources internal or external, give them some guidance on how to navigate a tough conversation, or just take note of a culture or engagement issue to address. You’ll also be helping employees navigate things like sick leave, disability, parental leave, and any other issues that might need accommodation or an advocate in their corner.

These conversations can be confidential, though you’ll have a duty to take further action when it comes to tough issues like harassment and discrimination or other legal issues. In that case, you’ll want to call up your employment lawyer for guidance.

With this aspect of your HR practice, it’s important to be aware of your boundaries and practice self care so that you are able to help effectively without taking on the stress and pain of others personally. As practitioners, the Bright + Early team has found taking training like Mental Health First Aid to be effective in knowing how to handle tough conversations.

Working With Leadership

A lot of managers are surprisingly clueless, and as an HR pro, you may be tasked with helping them out. Odds are that you’ll spend time coaching leaders on performance and feedback conversations, handling conflict, and how to use the company’s processes. It’s good to run a training program for managers or invest in one so they have a base knowledge of how to lead effectively and inclusively. Management is a learned skill!

Buckle up, because you’ll also be doing a lot of advocating to executives on behalf of employees. Maybe the latest engagement survey says that everyone’s burnt out, but your CEO is still stressed about making deadlines. There will be plenty of times you’ll have to look a leader in the eye and tell them they’re wrong, or that a decision will be unpopular. It’s not for the faint of heart, and you’ll want to come prepared with data and an open mind. Our best advice here is to find a role with a company and leaders that share your approach.

Offboarding

People will leave, either voluntarily or not so voluntarily. While it’s pretty much never HR’s decision whether someone is let go, you may be involved in the paperwork or conversations around a dismissal, as well as helping break the news to the team about a departure. You’ll also have administrative tasks like conducting exit interviews, keeping stats on turnover rates, and ensuring equipment is returned and government paperwork is filed.

Communications and Change Management

Change is hard, and leading a group through a change is even harder. Whatever the team shakeup is, it’s your job in HR to advise leadership on how change might affect people, and come up with communications strategies to help them through it. Whether it’s launching a new policy, communicating about layoffs or just leading annual reviews, working in HR involves a surprising amount of writing, communicating, and cat herding.

Administration

Organized? You’ll have to be! Along with the above, a solo HR generalist can expect to be creating and filing contracts and employee information, filing benefits and government forms, keeping track of time-off systems, maintaining an org chart, and running payroll, amongst other things. Having good HRIS software can take some of this off of your shoulders.

Working in HR isn’t for everyone. It requires a love of people, a data-driven mind, a designer’s curiosity, and an endless patience for being the butt of a lot of work jokes. The upside is in the impact. In a world where work is a reality, making that reality a happy, smooth-running and inclusive one can be challenging, rewarding work.

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