Human Resources (HR): Definition and Role Responsibilities

Updated December 27, 2022

A person smiles and holds a pen while talking to another person in an office setting.

Human resources, or HR, manages the employee life cycle, including recruiting, hiring, onboarding, training, performance management, administering benefits, compensation and firing. Regardless of a company’s size, it needs an effective human resources department to manage workforce labor, company policies and ensure legal compliance.

In this article, we explain what human resources is, how an HR department operates, the skills needed to succeed in this area and common human resources jobs.

Key takeaways:

  • The primary functions of a human resources (HR) department include recruitment and staffing, training and development, compensation and benefits, employee relations, legal compliance and corporate image.

  • Individuals who work in HR typically have strong people skills and enjoy helping others succeed.

  • Common HR jobs include records specialists, human resources assistants, compensation and benefits specialists, recruiting managers and human resources directors.

What is human resources?

Human resources (HR) is a department in a workplace that focuses on a company's most important asset—its employees—to ensure they're satisfied, engaged and have all the resources they require to perform as expected. HR is the department responsible for maintaining a company's personnel, employee relations and workplace culture. This team manages recruiting, hiring, firing, training, skills development, policy implementation, benefits, payroll, government regulation, legal compliance and safety and often moderates and helps resolve conflicts and concerns between employees.

HR professionals help give a company structure and order and foster productivity and organizational success. HR personnel partner with management to address personnel concerns and provide support and resources where needed so that managers can focus on running their department operations. Choosing a career in human resources can be a rewarding experience both personally and professionally.

Key functions of human resources

A company's HR department serves many purposes and roles. Whether you're interested in pursuing a role in human resources or you're curious how HR may affect your job search and employment experience, ensure to understand what HR does. Here are some of the key functions they oversee:

Recruitment and staffing

Human resources departments have a significant role in determining a company's staffing needs, recruiting new employees and hiring well-qualified candidates. This responsibility includes critical tasks such as identifying qualifications and requirements for each position, writing job descriptions and placing job postings, evaluating resumes, conducting interviews, completing background checks and working with department managers to select ideal candidates. The recruiting and hiring process is important because hiring the right people may increase operational efficiency, improve business outcomes and decrease turnover rates.

Related: What Does an HR Manager Do? Duties, Skills and Steps

New hire onboarding

After hiring employees, the human resources department guides new team members through their first days or weeks at the company. This process introduces new team members to the workplace culture and provides access to company resources that may help the employee navigate their employment journey and settle into their new role.

The HR staff is also responsible for developing and executing an onboarding plan to help new hires integrate into the workforce seamlessly and provides them with the information and tools they require to succeed in their roles. This guidance helps employees acclimate to their new position and workplace quickly and easily which benefits both the employees and the organization.

Related: What Is Human Resource Management? (With Duties and Tips)

Training and development

Whether an employee is a new hire or a long-time contributor to the company, they need ongoing skill-building and career development opportunities to continue being productive and successful to meet personal and professional goals.

It's the HR department's responsibility to plan and oversee the training needs of employees. Career development courses and training may include education on new technology, employee relations or leadership training for current or prospective supervisors.

Training can be one-on-one, through group meetings or via online courses and self-education. Human resources might also recommend or support employees' professional development by helping them earn a certain higher education degree by developing a tuition assistance or reimbursement program.

Related: HR Development vs. HR Management: What's the Difference?

Compensation and benefits

HR works with executive leadership to establish the organization's compensation philosophy. HR professionals often conduct market research to determine competitive pay rates and develop a compensation structure.

They also work with insurance brokers to select health and welfare benefits such as medical, dental, vision, life insurance and 401(k) for employees. HR also oversees benefits administration including enrollment and processing.

Related: What Can I Do With a Human Resource Management Degree

Employee well-being

The human resource department helps support and improve employees' work-life quality and the company culture. They create and oversee programs such as day care, health and wellness initiatives, paid time off and other efforts to keep employees happy and motivated.

The HR department also gauges employee satisfaction through focus groups, opinion surveys and regular feedback and uses this input to improve the workplace. A well-run company shows concern for and cares about each of its employees. The human resources department helps foster this supportive work environment which helps reduce employee turnover and enhance performance.

Related: Why Is Human Resources (HR) Important?

Performance reviews and promotions

The human resources department facilitates annual or semi-annual performance evaluations for all employees. A performance review process allows managers to check in with employees one-on-one to discuss performance, define performance criteria and measurements, set expectations and goals which align with business objectives and drive employee development while promoting fairness and transparency.

Based on performance, experience and seniority, an employee's manager and human resources might decide to promote an employee or present them with a salary increase. Generally, HR works with senior leadership to set company rules and expectations for promotions and reward top employees for their dedication and commitment to improvements.

Related: What Are Human Resources Specializations? (With 5 Specializations)

Record keeping

Because human resources employees are responsible for the entire employee database, the department organizes and oversees confidential information such as contracts, wages, job responsibilities, disciplinary measures and performance reviews. Human resources staff are often extremely well-organized, meticulous, discreet and professional, keeping information easily accessible at all times.

Related: Personnel Management: Definition, Types and Benefits in the Workplace

Legal compliance

The human resources department makes sure its organization adheres to labor, union and federal and state laws. This helps keep businesses compliant with regulations like fair employment, workplace safety and much more.

This responsibility is important because employee complaints of noncompliance or unfair or unsafe work conditions can affect workplace morale, productivity and profits. The HR staff also ensures employees can legally work for their company and handles complaints pertaining to discrimination and harassment.

Related: Human Resource Planning: Definition, Steps and Tools

Corporate image

By educating employees about company values and policies, the human resources department helps protect the company's corporate image and reputation. An effective HR team can also bolster a company's reputation as a top employer to work for which can help attract top talent. It can also help mitigate and avoid possible conflicts and situations that may reduce the image of their employer.

Workplace safety

Human resources departments oversee workplace safety training and record employee injuries or illnesses that occur on the job, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). This act requires companies to provide safe and clean work conditions for staff and human resources personnel are also well-versed in this legislation. Often, human resources set workplace policies and put together safety training materials. They often manage employee compensation for safety issues or injuries.

Related: The 8 Key Functional Areas of Human Resources Management

What is a human resources department?

A human resources department can be a single generalist, an entire team of specialists or an outsourced service, depending on the company's needs. In most cases, full human resources departments are a necessity in larger companies with many employees and complex needs. A smaller company that doesn't need or can't afford a fully staffed, in-house human resources department might employ one generalist or outsource its HR responsibilities to a third-party service.

Three groups of people work together, with the trio on the left appearing to be meeting for the first time.

Types of human resources support

Here are the types of human resources support that companies might partner with:

In-house human resources department

With an in-house department, human resources professionals are on-site and intimately familiar with every aspect of a company's policies and employee relations. Staff can meet with employees in person at any time which helps resolve conflicts and ensures paperwork processes quickly and efficiently.

In-house HR staff also tend to have a more personal connection with employees and their success. Employees typically feel comfortable approaching a trusted and unbiased in-house HR professional to discuss or settle issues or disputes at work, or talk about benefits and compensation.

Professional employer organizations (PEO)

Smaller companies may choose to partner with a professional employer organization (PEO) to manage HR needs. A PEO essentially employs the company's workforce, taking legal responsibility for them and overseeing all hiring, firing and compensation processes.

When smaller and even mid-size companies lack the budget or resources for an in-house HR department or manager, outsourcing those functions to PEOs or e-services might make the most sense. Human resources jobs within those organizations vary but require similar skill sets and a desire to improve people's work lives.

Business process outsourcing (BPO)

By HR definition, a BPO takes care of many company needs, including but not limited to human resources. This type of organization relies heavily on technology to streamline company processes and departments. Companies that provide these services often provide them to many businesses at the same time.

Application service providers (ASPs)

An ASP is an e-service that vendors rent to companies to manage critical HR needs such as benefits, policies, compensation, record-keeping and more. Employees and leadership can access the web program and manage their preferences and complete tasks online, such as enrolling in benefits. Some ASPs also provide consultants that help train and develop staff and resolve workplace conflicts on an as-needed basis.

Related: The Hierarchy of HR Job Titles (With Average Salary)

Common human resources skills

Individuals who work in HR typically have strong people skills and enjoy helping others succeed. Here are a few of the skills and strengths necessary to excel in a human resources career:

  • Interpersonal skills: As the mediator in employee relations, HR professionals have excellent interpersonal skills and can address employee concerns tactfully. They often are able to manage and resolve potential conflicts between employees and, in some situations, employers.

  • Ability to adapt to new technology: Human resources professionals are often comfortable using technology and Human Resources Information Software (HRIS) to manage payroll and other HR processes and keep workforce operations running smoothly and efficiently. They might also require performing data analysis and projections.

  • Communication skills: Individuals who work in HR need excellent customer service and communication skills for phone, email and in-person interactions. Good communication skills also include the ability to actively listen to employees' grievances and needs.

  • Public speaking: Some HR professionals may give presentations or announcements in front of large groups, departments or an entire company. They might provide information on topics ranging from benefits packages to company policies.

  • Organization and project management: HR professionals are often able to multitask effectively and manage a variety of projects. They have good scheduling skills and are able to prioritize responsibilities.

  • Discretion: Because HR teams handle many sensitive matters and confidential or private information, these individuals are often discreet to avoid legal and professional repercussions. They often approach tasks such as disciplinary action, employee complaints or disputes with care.

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