What's in a Name?

In this blog post, OMNI Senior Consultant Roger Dusing, PhD, offers an overview of how the name of the department that manages employment, employee relations, benefits, etc., has evolved over the decades, and what it all means. (Image from Shutterstock)

When I was new to the workforce, the department that managed employment, employee relations, benefits, etc. was call “Personnel.” The national organization for “personnel” people was the American Society for Personnel Administration (ASPA). Then in the 1980s, a new name came into being: “personnel” evolved into “human resources,” and the ASPA became the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM.

As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”

Why all the fuss? Well, sometimes names matter. Personnel became HR in an attempt to acknowledge that people are an important asset to the organization. This change signaled that people are an asset that an employer needs to manage strategically, and HR was now more frequently invited into the C-Suite. Jack Welch famously said that his two most important direct reports were his CFO and his CHRO (chief human resources officer). Now, the reality was that the duties of HR were not substantially different than the duties of Personnel, but the name change created awareness and opened some doors to creative thinking.

And now the times are changing again. Some are trending to HCM – Human Capital Management. The intent is to acknowledge that for many organizations, people are their largest category of expense, and that investment needs to be well managed. Personally, this one bothers me a bit, as it feels like it relates just to the fiscal aspect. I know that’s not the intent, but it is a perception.

Other organizations are using “people” where they used to use “human resources.” You’ll see the terms “Chief People Officer” or “People Operations Department” used more frequently. Is there a difference? It depends on whom you ask. Some will say the difference is simply branding. Very few individuals have a people operations problem, but they’ve all had HR problems.

But others draw a larger differential. Some will say that HR focuses more on compliance and efficiency while People Operations is about effectiveness and development. Another author describes People Operations as more about the employment experience, with more nurturing and growth, while HR is all about enforcing policies and doing what they’ve been told.

Well, as a long-term HR guy, I take some offense to that characterization, but I agree with Shakespeare.  If you want to call it People Operations to improve the brand, go for it. But what really matters, regardless of the name, is what you do with it. All organizations need a well-functioning (and sufficiently funded) department that:

  1. Helps to attract, select, onboard, and retain the best possible talent;
  2. Ensures that talent is paid an internally equitable and externally competitive wage and has access to the benefits their families need;
  3. Assists the organization to change and grow through organizational and employee development;
  4. Keeps the organization in compliance with the vast and growing number of federal, state, and local employment laws;
  5. Assists managers when employees do things that are not in the organization’s best interest;
  6. Helps the organization to assess performance, provide feedback and coaching, recognize and reward high performance, and offboard ineffective employees; and
  7. Holds a respected seat at the executive table and is involved in all major decisions that impact the organization.

Unfortunately, lots of organizations still have “personnel” departments, regardless of what they are called. These departments are relegated to administrative tasks and ensuring compliance; and they are rarely consulted before there is a problem. The heads of these departments typically report to a CFO or other executive and are rarely considered an equal when they do get to address the executives. This is a problem, not in what the department is called, but in the culture of the executives. It is a culture that often derives from history – if a leader has never seen a great HR department, then they don’t know what they are missing and are satisfied with their “personnel” department.

If we are going to change the name, then let’s take the opportunity to also change the culture. Let’s ensure that all executives understand what the department can do, and let’s make sure that the department has the money and talent to do that. As People Ops staff, let’s expect more from ourselves and make sure the rest of the organization knows what we are all about. People Operations, here we come!

Note: The quote is from Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II – Juliet says this to Romeo suggesting that she has no problem with him being a Montague when she’s a Capulet. Now you have some culture in your day. 

Roger Dusing, PhD, is a Senior Consultant and the Higher Education Practice Leader at OMNI. He previously served as Chief Human Resource Officer at Park University for eleven years. With over 40 years of HR experience, including 30 years in C-suite level roles, he looks forward to reflecting his passion for higher education in his work to bring affordable, high-quality HR services to small- to medium-sized colleges and universities. 

Roger holds a PhD in Business Management, with a concentration in Human Resources from Northcentral University, a Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University. He also authored the book “I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable About the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another.”