What is a Human Resources Consultant anyway?

HR Consultants are more than just “The Bobs” from “Office Space”

This is the THIRD article in a series themed “Employer of Choice.”

When you’re the CEO of a Human Resources Consulting Company, frequent solo business travel is part of the gig. This means a lot of time in airports and on planes striking up conversations with other solo business travelers that inevitably involve the question “What do you do?”

My response is usually: “I’m an HR Consultant.”

There are five common reactions I typically get, represented by this chart:

A pie chart representing the responses received by Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell, CEO of HR Partners, when she tells other business travelers that she works in Human Resources.

In case you aren’t familiar with the movie references, allow me to explain. In the 1999 movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston) hates his job at the fictional company Initech, where his obnoxious boss, Bill Lumbergh, has just hired two “efficiency consultants” (aka, “The Bobs”) to downsize the company. Ten years later, the movie Up in the Air introduced us to Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a consultant who enjoys living out of a suitcase for his job, traveling around the country firing people. In both cases, the consultant is being brought in to terminate employees. When you add in those who ask if my job is to fire people, that means just about 80% of the business travelers I interact with think that my job as an HR Consultant is headcount reduction.

About 6% of my temporary travel companions understand my work as training – they may be the smallest group, but they are the most adorable! Imagine believing that all HR people really do is train employees on subjects like Sexual Harassment or Communication in the Workplace!

Lastly, there’s the 15% (in yellow) who don’t understand why my work would ever require leaving the office – they are truly my inspiration for this piece.

This informally-collected data supports a major perception issue HR professionals have been battling for decades: That the scope of HR work is limited to benefits and payroll, compliance, recruiting, and terminations.

Where did this perception come from?

Like most stereotypes, the belief that HR people “hire and fire” is at least somewhat rooted in reality. For an enormous portion of the American workforce, the only encounter they will ever have with an HR representative is when they are being on-boarded to their organization or being terminated from it (voluntarily or otherwise). To make matters worse, in an increasingly virtual world, these interactions are often done entirely over phones and video chats.  

In many organizations, executives perpetuate the stigma as they exert their leadership. I’ve seen countless examples of poor integration of the HR function within organizations, all of which undermine the value HR can bring. Here are a few:

  • HR is permitted to interact only with selected members of the leadership team
  • HR reports to a function such as Finance on the org chart
  • HR activities are restricted to managing compliance and reacting to employment issues
  • HR is viewed as overhead, leading to minimal investments in HR initiatives
  • Workforce development is viewed as ‘soft’ or ‘fluff’

My intention here is not to lament the (often valid) reasons organizations limit Human Resources, nor to judge the decision-making processes of executive leaders. Instead, I aim to challenge organizations to think more strategically and comprehensively about utilization of the HR function and optimizing the role of HR professionals to develop strong workplace cultures.

The three arenas of Human Resources

While I was preparing for my SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP®) exam, I came across the most concise yet comprehensive description of Human Resources I have seen: Three arenas – 1.) administrative HR, 2.) operational HR, and 3.) strategic HR – that work in tandem to help companies align their business goals and strategies with their human resource goals and strategies

Each arena has a distinct set of tasks and responsibilities associated with it, but all three arenas overlap in many ways to support each other and create synergies that support the overall organization.

Administrative HR is the HR most people know well. It’s the day-to-day transactional work focused largely on compliance and record keeping, for example: Oversight of payroll and benefits vendors; compliance reporting, data management, employee records; and Human Resource Information System (HRIS) software management.

Operational HR is a high-touch, in-person arena, using the information provided by the administrative arena to help organizational leaders make informed decisions. HR operations manages talent acquisition and development, compensation and incentive initiatives, employee engagement programming, and conflict/employee relations issues.

Strategic HR shapes and influences both the administrative and operational arenas by looking at the big picture (i.e., business strategies and goals) and identifying ways to empower the workforce to execute the vision. In the strategic arena, HR studies human capital trends within a company and uses that information to update organizational plans, and they conduct market research and identify how external forces are impacting their company and its employees. Succession planning, career development, performance management, diversity and inclusion, coaching, mentoring, knowledge management, and leadership development are all activities that fall squarely within the strategic HR realm.

When – and only when – an organization is structured to support the full engagement of HR across all three arenas does that company have a fighting chance to become an Employer of Choice. (An Employer of Choice is a business established to be great place to work. People desire to work for you and choose to stay with you.)

You might say, “well, only large companies with deep pockets can implement all three HR arenas.”

My response: This is 100% UNtrue.

Whether there are three or three thousand people in your organization, the key is for leadership to see the value in HR and then provide support for HR professionals as they work to deliver that value.

With this article floating in the ether of the internet, I’m hopeful and expectant. Who knows, perhaps on my next solo dinner between flights at an airport bar, I’ll strike up conversation with a neighbor who hears that I’m in Human Resources and kindly replies: “No kidding! Which arena – strategic, operational, or administrative?”

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Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell is the CEO of HR Partners, an HR Outsourcing & Consulting firm based in Dover, New Hampshire. She always welcomes questions, comments, and stories and can be reached at pubali@h-rpartners.com. Visit the HRP website at: www.h-rpartners.com.