People Operations vs Human Resources vs Human Relations

A business’s greatest asset is its people, so perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people-related phrases exist in the business world. Human resources, human relations, people operations—the list goes on. So, which people management strategy should you choose for your company?


We’ll begin this post with a clear definition of each people-centric phrase, and then we’ll talk about the main responsibilities of human resources, human relations and people management departments.


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Unpacking the PM jargon

Isn’t people operations just another name for human resources? How does human relations differ from people ops? Let’s define each term to find the answers to those questions—and a few others.


What is human resources?

The umbrella term “human resources” first appeared in the 1960s. Unions were widespread, and businesses realized that to gain an edge in the collective bargaining process, they’d need dedicated human resource departments.


From a business perspective, human resources means two things:

  • The people who work at a company, in an industry, in an economy or in a business sector—otherwise known as “human capital”
  • The department responsible for managing the people who work at a company

What is human relations?

Human relations is less of a descriptive term for people—or for a department within an organization—and more of an approach to people management. Human relations is a morale-boosting concept employed by line managers to keep subordinate employees happy at work. The theory goes something like this: if employees stay content, they’re far less likely to resist formal authority.


What is people operations?

Commonly known as people ops, people operations is a newer alternative to human resources. In a traditional human resources model, employees are considered paid human capital; in a people ops approach, companies work with and empower individual employees to help them achieve their full potential. The communication between employer and employee in a people ops configuration is far more give-and-take than the employer-employee communication in a regular human resources framework.


People management departments defined

Nearly all companies—no matter how big or small—have some kind of people management department. Some companies employ an individual, while others use technology to automate personnel management processes. Let’s see what each approach to people management looks like on the ground.


What does a human resources department do?

Traditional human resources departments manage the employee life cycle. HR staff hire, onboard, train, guide, discipline, terminate and offboard employees. Other key HR department tasks include:

  • Processing payroll: HR staff calculate employee hours, figure overtime and make sure everyone gets paid promptly.
  • Updating policies: Personnel update policies as their parent companies grow and develop, and also in accordance with changes in the law.
  • Maintaining employee records: Specific records have to remain on file for a set number of years, even if employees leave the company.
  • Promoting employees: HR personnel identify suitable candidates for internal vacancies and promote staff from one position to another.

When they’re well run, HR departments work hard to support employees—but they do so based on an overarching set of policies and procedures, rather than taking an individualist approach.


What does a human relations department do?

Where human relations departments exist as individual bodies within an organization, they facilitate communication between line managers and their employees. You can think of human relations staff as negotiators, rather than disciplinarians. Human relations managers work to develop and implement strategies that boost morale, like:

  • Designing better benefits packages: Human relations executives stay on top of industry benefits trends and look at packages offered by competitors to build better benefits programs for employees.
  • Solving conflicts: Human relations personnel regularly resolve conflicts between peers and between managers and their employees.
  • Representing employees: Members of a company’s human relations department can act as neutral third party witnesses during negotiations. They can also represent employees at board meetings and union conferences.
  • Fostering diversity: Human relations managers pore over and modify company recruitment policies to ensure that they’re inclusive.

What does a people operations department do?

A people operations department isn’t the same as a human resources department, but it does incorporate all the responsibilities of an HR department. Instead of pigeonholing employees and applying a set of standardized policies across the board, people ops staff work with each person on an individual basis. People ops department responsibilities include:

  • Modernizing outdated HR systems: People ops managers make sure applicant tracking and payroll systems stay up to date.
  • Treating employees like customers: From a people ops point of view, employees are a company’s most precious asset—so they need to be taken care of.
  • Supporting employees: Each employee received a completely personalized experience in the workplace. Training opportunities, wages and hours are all flexible and negotiable.
  • Developing company culture: When employees feel proud of and loyal to their employers, staff turnover decreases and productivity increases.

Do you need all three departments at your business?

Most companies don’t need three independent people management departments. Instead, they benefit from solid, well-conceived people ops departments. Standard HR tasks, like payroll and benefits, get subsumed into employee-focused teams. Some processes remain automated, while others are transformed by human involvement.


Businesses sometimes try to revamp their existing HR departments by implementing human relations and people ops-style policies on top of existing human resources frameworks. This approach saves money, but unfortunately, it rarely creates true systemic change because it doesn’t dismantle the inherent bureaucracy of a traditional HR department. The extra investment and time needed to completely revamp a business’s approach to personnel management tends to pay off in the end.


Recapping people management

Traditional HR departments put people in categories and apply a standard set of procedures to each group. Human relations professionals resolve conflict in the workplace, represent employees at meetings and encourage diversity in the workplace. People ops managers deal with employees as individual people, rather than human capital units.


In the end, the right personnel management strategy for your company will depend on several factors, including how many people you employ and how much time you have to devote to employee development. One thing is for sure, though: The happier your employees, the more productive they’ll be—and a productive workforce leads to company success.

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