Should You Have an HR Department? If so, Who Should Run It?


Change the Organization’s Design to Get Different Results; But Be Careful . . . You Will Get What You DesignI was intrigued to read a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, entitled, “Is It a Dream or a Drag? Companies Without HR,” by Lauren Weber & Rachel Feintzeig, dated April 9, 2014. My reaction: Of course any employer with more than a handful of employees needs someone with human resources responsibility. There are too many employment laws and regulations that can bite the unwary manager without some HR expertise readily available. But then, I’ve spent over thirty years in HR roles or dealing with others who worked in HR, so I might be biased.

Why HR Is Necessary

In an ideal world, managers could manage their people without the support of HR. Managers would all be good coaches and give direct feedback. Employees would all be rational and desirous of doing a good job.

But people are people. They are messy.

And someone needs to clean up the messes. In the workplace arena, it’s HR and employment lawyers who clean up the messes.

The traditional rule of thumb from my workforce planning days a decade ago was that for every 100 employees, a business should have one dedicated manager to handle human resources issues—including hirings, firings, and everything in between.

The Wall Street Journal article cited the Society of Human Resources Management as saying that in 2012, U.S. employers had on average 1.54 HR professionals for every 100 employees. So the trend seems to be toward increasing the ratio of HR to other employees, rather than doing away with HR.

HR Professionals Can Come From Anywhere

More interesting from my point of view, was a recent Workforce magazine article discussing what background HR managers should have. See “YourForce: Who Should Run HR?” by Mike Prokopeak, Workforce, April 6, 2014.

Mr. Prokopeak took the position that

“If HR desires to achieve the recognition it seeks as “a key contributor,” it must move to a new paradigm in which there is an agreed to body of knowledge in HR based on academic and applied research. Certifications could be required before one is employed in HR.”

While I believe that HR departments are necessary in any organization of more than a few dozen employees, I don’t necessarily think that HR managers need to have degrees in personnel management, or even in business administration.

I’ve known great HR managers who had backgrounds in engineering, in law (myself included), in communications, in finance, and in other fields as well. The field of human resources is extremely broad. Just a few of the fields in HR include

  • compensation design, which requires strong numerical skills,
  • benefits administration, which requires a knowledge of detailed regulations,
  • employee relations, where knowledge of labor laws and psychology would be helpful,
  • training and employee development, where a background in education and instructional design helps.

Anyone with a strong desire to improve the design of an organization or an aptitude to improve working relationships between people can find a role in HR.

While I support the development of certifications such as the PHR and SPHR, to show that HR professionals have some understanding of the theories and regulations impacting the workplace, I do not believe that a formal degree in HR is needed.

In your opinion, should HR professionals be required to have a particular degree?

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2 Comments

Filed under Human Resources, Management, Workplace

2 responses to “Should You Have an HR Department? If so, Who Should Run It?

  1. You raise an important question. On the one hand, I agree with you that certification is unnecessary. If you have the passion, curiosity and aptitude for different roles in HR, that’s the key to effectiveness. Plus, employees with work experience outside HR can bring new ideas into the discipline and hold more weight as a business partner.

    On the other hand, those who are willing to go through certification demonstrate an interest and commitment that helps recruiters sift through candidates. They also bring some of the latest thinking to the table which is much needed in this field.

    It’s up to the individual seeking the role to demonstrate how they benefit the department. If you can make a good argument as to why you’re the best candidate, with or without certification, then focus on that message.

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