What Job Does HR Really Do?

I just finished reading Clayton Christensen’s newest book call “How Will You Measure Your Life” (my money quotes from the book can be found here.)  In that book he reintroduced one of his marketing concepts called “jobs-to-be-done.”  Originally discussed by Christensen in the context of how consumers decide on products, Christensen posited that customers don’t buy products so much as they “hire” a product to get a job done.  The job to be done is the focus – not the “product.”

I think he was riffing on what Theodore Levitt pointed out in his classic article Marketing Myopia (1960), – customers don’t buy 1/4 inch drills – what they really buy are 1/4 inch holes. They buy a result not a product.

When I was reminded of that concept – “consumers want outcomes not products” – I started thinking about HR and what they “do.”  And I started wondering if we are using an outdated model of what HR is supposed to do – and ignoring the real issue of what a company would hire today if they were asked what job needed to be done.

If I went by what I read on the blogs and in some of the HR press I’d think most companies are hiring HR for the following outputs…

  • Better dress codes…
  • Punctual employees…
  • Motivated Employees…
  • Well-written employee handbooks…
  • Happy managers who don’t have to do the unpleasant parts of their job…

I know there are plenty of HR people who may take exception to that quick list but I believe that is a pretty good reflection of what many HR people (and non HR people) think HR’s job outputs are. But are those the outputs that are desired?  Are those the outputs most top-level execs would say are wanted?

Is the real disconnect with HR the fact that they are doing the job they “think” needs to be done but not the job the company actually needs done?

Would HR get a different picture of their focus if we asked executive teams what “job outputs are needed” – not “what does HR do?” … or “what should HR do?” But what “outputs” do they require?

Marketing Directors may have a job description that says “manage social media campaigns” but the real output is always going to be – drive more sales, have more conversations, create more leads, increase brand awareness – in other words some measured “outcome.”

What is HR’s measured outcome?

I hear the discussions about “strategic HR” and the need to talk ROI and understand the business better.  But I don’t think management sits around saying they want to hire “more strategic HR.”  I think they have strategic problems that someone who understands what’s going on in the world of accessing and managing human talent can help them solve.

So what is the answer to the question of what would you hire HR to do?

What are the outcomes that HR needs to hang their hat on?

I’ll take a couple of easy ones and then shoot them down…

HR outcome #1 – Lower Turnover

How is this HR’s problem?  Turnover is a function of a 100 different things – of which maybe 2 fall in HR’s wheelhouse – benefits and pay (and I’d argue pay doesn’t count).  Turnover is a function of the company culture, the manager relationship, the market, etc.  Hiring HR to affect the output of turnover is just wrong.  I might say the real “output” you hire HR for is to help managers understand how THEY can be one of the main solutions for high (or low) turnover.  That is the job you’re really hiring HR for, no?

HR Outcome #2 – Enhance Company Culture

Again – how is this HR’s problem and not EVERYONE’s problem?  You can’t hire HR for an outcome like culture when HR has almost ZERO impact on culture. Can you hire HR to make sure the executives know how their horrible behaviors impact culture? Yup – and that is an output I can get behind.

HR Outcome #3 – Motivate Employees

Sure – HR should be responsible for the motivation of 100s if not 1000s of employees they don’t know, haven’t met, won’t ever meet and could really care less about.  That is not an HR output.  If it is – it’s really more (again) about training managers who have greater influence on, and connection with, those 100s and 1000s of employees and who can actually have some impact on the outcome.

As I run through a lot of the “outcomes” we think HR should be responsible for I can’t help but think that we need to evaluate what outcomes a company wants from HR – and focus a lot less on the “traditional” job we have come to think HR does for a company.

A consumer never said they wanted an iPod – or iTunes – but they flocked in droves to those products because they solved a problem – they got a job done that needed doing.

What job needs to be done in your company?

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Greg Modd says:

    Great article, Paul.

  2. Kristy says:

    This is a smart article; something inspiring for a Monday following a long holiday weekend. It certainly got me thinking about HR (and my own) outcomes. Looking forward to continued discussion on this. Nice work!

  3. Brilliant! I think many of us strongly agree with you. Now, to get our management teams to agree with it!

  4. TalentTalks says:

    Ironically, we keep hearing and reading how HR needs to be more strategic, understand business and earn their rear-end more visible placement in the executive corner of the building. However, when reviewing most HR industry job postings (practically all levels), one would get the impression that experience administering payroll, benefits, HRIS, ATS, FMLA and knowledge of state and federal laws are the key “needs.” That along with interview questions focused on “tell me about a time when you investigated an employee misconduct issue” or “have you ever written a social media policy?” don’t reflect much of anything related to HR actually changing the dinosaur reputation.

    While as an HR person I’m capable of handling all of the above, none of that compares to the impact of delving into the contributions that influence outcomes tied to business objectives. That might include helping leaders develop their talent, communicate better, proactively plan for inevitable change and otherwise facilitate the removal of obstacles to progress, productivity and profitability. Great article, Paul – KB @TalentTalks

  5. HR Macgyver says:

    Great article and THANK YOU for addressing what the rest of us do for a living. I have stopped telling people I work in HR and just explain that I am a management consultant, otherwise there are strange looks when I tell them I do not hire, fire, process payroll, benefits or fly around on a broomstick looking for dress code violators. Within the workplace I do see a slow shift of understanding and dare I say, appreciation for what we offer. I can’t speak for most, but I am pleased to work with executives who are at least open to what we are trying accomplish…..that said, we still have a long way to go to fully integrate HR philosophies beyond functional practices, but I do believe it starts with me and HR peers to create that shift and show that we have earned that executive corner office. As for the functional aspect of HR; that’s the minimum cost of the ticket to entry, knowing employment law is like an accountant knowing how to add and subtract, it’s a given. I know my worth and so do my execs when the s*&t doesn’t hit the fan because not only do I know the functional aspects but I can strategically maneuver through the corporate jungle with my HR issued duct tape and a string.

  6. Milcah says:

    Thanks for such a great insight. It is actually true that we have to shift the paradgm of how we work in HR since diverse and more unique situatons are croping up and need a “generation Y” viewpoint.

  7. Great article!
    I agree with HR Mc Macgyver. I’m working in HR as well, but I haven’t been proud to mention it for strangers. Many people just judge me and other people who’re working in HR. Cause HR is just hiring, firing and shuffle aorund, right??

    I do think that people in general are beginning to accept and understand the meaning of HR. HR is VERY important, if the employees don’t like to be at work, well… Then the manager has a huge problem! You can educate a lot of things withing HR. I took an education called Mini MBA here in Denmark. I think it was great, and I’m sure there’s a lot of education in America and England as well. If we, who work in HR, keep educate and getting smarter and better, then one day, people might accept and even appreciate HR-people!

  8. Hedda Bird says:

    Perhaps I could be a little bit controversial here – all that stuff about employee handbooks – I think that is what a lot fo senior managers want from HR. They certainly DON’T WANT anyone from HR looking at management style or its impact on the culture – that might be to expose them as weaker than they are. In years of working with HR professionals at improving performance, it never fails to amaze me how much ‘development’ stops at the C-Suite door.

    And how about this: if senior managers have ‘horrible behaviours’ – well that’s what got them to the top in fhe first place – so they arent going to change now. And any bright spark looking up will see that horrible behaviour = success.

    What to do? HR’s job is the strategic development of one of the organisation’s assets – it’s people. Like other asset managers, They need to focus on how to increase the value of employees to the business – this is a mix of capability and ‘personal strengths’ relevant to a role such as guts, perseverance, accuracy, creativity etc.

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