The 5 Attributes of a Great Human Resources Department

From the HR blog at TLNT. Illustration by
IFrom the HR blog at TLNT. llustration by

Lots of talk about bad and ineffective HR.

Some say that the antidote to bad HR is to create some hyper-vigilant, technology-driven department of super nerds who obsess about big data and organizational psychology.

I hate that.

And it’s not realistic.

So I wanted to throw out some ideas for what defines a good Human Resources department.

  1. People get paid on time. Anybody ever worked “under the table” for cash? Food service. Construction. Baby sitting. Landscaping. We know what happens without an accountable payroll department.
  2. Civil and human rights are protected. If your company had its way, safety and security would be negotiable. The free market would determine whether or not you were hurt or harassed at work. And if you didn’t like it, you could quit.
  3. Accountability is enforced. The best HR departments balance compliance with accountability. If management decides it wants to take a risk — whether it’s with your personal safety or with the financial solvency of the company — HR isn’t there to police the decision. But HR is there to make sure that the authorities know who to blame when the poop hits the fan.
  4. There’s something in it for you. Beyond getting paid and making sure you’re not killed in a freak accident, work has to have some meaning. Whether it’s paid holidays or Taco Tuesday, the best HR departments remind management that employees are not robots and need more than food, water and a paycheck.
  5. Fairness has a seat at the table. HR doesn’t guarantee that you will work in a meritocracy; however, fairness should have a fighting chance when HR is around.

I always tell my HR audiences — there is nothing wrong with administrative work if you make a difference in the world and make the trains run on time.

Article Continues Below

Paying people. Ensuring safety and security. Demanding accountability. Finding balance in the world. Those are awesome aspects of Human Resources.

Not everyone gets to work with the CEO. Very few people have responsibilities for budgets and headcount. But everyone in HR can be responsible for Taco Tuesday.

That’s a pretty sweet thing.

This was originally published on Laurie Ruettimann’s The Cynical Girl blog.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


18 Comments on “The 5 Attributes of a Great Human Resources Department

  1. Nice try! If these 5 benchmarks are what makes a great HR department, we are all in trouble. Nobody contests the fact that there is an administrative component in HR that must be satisfied. However, there are far too many CEO’s who believe that this is the only thing HR should be doing and to stay out of their way when it comes to running the organization. Studies show that the administrative work in HR consumes about 40 percent of their time, thus, outsourcing of some of these responsbilities allows for the HR department to do what it should be doing and that is working directly with management at all levels in finding ways to leverage the human capital of an organization in ways that drive the organization forward, increases productivity and efficiency and to gain a competitive advantage. These are the true hallmarks of a great HR department.

    1. Spot on Ron. Being a true HR business partner increases the productivity and efficiencies for Human Capital. Administrative tasks should be outsourced or delegated to a resource center within the organization to allow the HRBP to lead strategies that matter more than what is outlined in this article.

      1. HRBPs don’t lead strategy. The CEO sets strategy in coordination with the CFO, CIO, Chief Risk Officer and maybe the CHRO (SVP of HR). Then the rest of the HR organization falls in line to meet those goals and strategic objectives.

        There is one executive chef in HR. The rest of us are just line cooks — and if we don’t know this about ourselves, we are fools.

        1. Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Ms. Ruettimann lists 5 things that are a “must” for HR to provide before moving on to some even greater strategic initiatives. In order for HR organizations to be able to work w/ every employee in the organization to maximize Human Capital potential, provide “Big Data” analysis, introduce the slickest HR technology, we must be able to do the basics to perfection. Once this is done and credibility is built/earned, then we can start to build upon these.

          Some companies are in a position to make bold, cutting edge strategic HR initiatives, and that is fantastic. I hope those companies/HR people are sharing their experiences and what it took for them to get to that point.

          I’d love to do every one of the big initiatives, but not every company is ready or have the capacity to do so.

          1. I can understand where Ron is coming from. However, I have to go with Laurie because HR is not exactly a legislated “professional” Department. The scope of work it does varies, according to the level of maturity prevailing within the company vis a vis dynamism of the top gun’s leadership.

            I have tasted many failures trying to play the strategic partnership role. The leadership maturity is just not ready for the kind of strategic paradigm shift initiatives required to fulfill the future talent and HC needs of business.

            Not many HRians have the luxury of walking away from a job, just because the department don’t fit into the high profile role of strategic HRBP. So what does HR do, whist waiting for the leadership to grow?. They accommodate and do the best in what they can do – being effective in “administrative” stuff.

            If doing “administrative” stuff is seen as being too shallow of HR potential, then who needs to wise up, in terms of accountability for strategic initiatives in achieving operational effectiveness and cost efficiency.

            In most countries (at least developing countries), SMEs form 95% of the registered businesses. And, you would be lucky to find HR Departments in there. And, where there is, at best, all are doing purely “payroll administrative” stuff. And, if they can do Laurie’s other 4 ‘obligations” well, it will indeed make HR stick out !

          2. a payroll request change is a big deal??? a manager request a raise, it gets approved, HR submits the info to Payroll. Not sure why this is even being talked about. This is a very minor task and takes no skill from anyone to do (let alone HR). why are you talking about this? work on building up a good relationship with workforce and keeping people engaged. Grow the talent within the organization, promote opportunity for team member to get educated and move up in the company.

    2. Hi, Ron.

      Most companies outside the F100 do not have the budget or the time to hire sophisticated Big Four veteran HR consultants-slash-advisors. They hire normal HR people who operate like project managers. Those HR people outsource payroll to ADP, they find a good benefits broker to manage the complexities of a total rewards package, and then they divide the rest of their time according to the 80/20 rule: managing 80% of the workforce nonsense that is caused from the 20% of the employee population.

      Very few HR people occupy any position of authority above glorified project manager — but studies show that there are plenty of people who have never done the real work that is done in the trenches of HR and have no real understanding of the inner-workings of HR who try to make those HR people feel bad about their jobs.

      The real work of HR is important even when you denigrate it with the word “administrative.”

      1. Laurie:
        Where did I says that you have to hire high priced HR advisors/consultants? My point was and is that yes, size and budget has a great deal to do with what an HR department can do. However there is no price tag on innovation and creativity or size criteria. Also, you and I may have traveled in different circles, but I have worked in both small, family owned businesses and was as the corporate giants. The HR department is what you make it and that depends on a negotiations between the CEO/Business Owners, and the head of HR. Contrary to your notion of most HR people being cooks and bottle washers, there are many, many very competent and influential HR people in companies large and small. As I have advised CEO’s ‘the HR department you have is the HR department you deserve.” The point is that your expectations of what HR can do for you should be agreed upon by the CHRO and the CEO. There may be and usually are significant differences in the way that CEO’s view HR and they should be advised and educated by the CHRO in terms of what the HR department can and should do. If there is no agreement, then it is time to move on. I am not in disagreement (as noted by other comments above) that the administrative chores must be accomplished but the HR function has to move to the next level which is more strategic and not tactical which is the way that most HR departments act. So, in the end, HR has to prove that it exists for more reasons than keep the government away from your door. That stated in the 1950’s and still remains today. But, that is not the primary reason for the existence of HR.

  2. I agree with Ron, these are all adminstrative functions on a level with Mom and apple pie…Where is talent aquisition, following the provisions of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, ensuring hiring tests are valid and predictive, doing job analysis to ensure job-critical competencies are identified and measured, and all the other practices that ensure a fully-qualified workforce?
    Some would think any department that calls itself “Human Resources” would be following best hiring and promotion practices. After all, this would minimize adverse impact, provide a deep succession planning pool, reduce training expense, raise individual productivity, and benefit the bottom line…But that’s just my humble opinion.

    1. Who said anything about being a mom?

      All of those important things that you incorporate into HR are there in my list.

      -When civil and human rights are protected, you follow the provisions of the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection
      Procedures and ensure that hiring tests are valid and predictive.

      -When fairness has a seat at the table, you conduct job
      analyses to ensure job-critical competencies are identified and

      -When accountability is enforced, all the other practices are incorporated to ensure a fully-qualified
      Here. Let me make you an infographic to show you. [sarcasm]

  3. From my perspective and based on my experience from both North America and the UK; truly great HR balances administrative efficiency (e.g. paying people right each time and every time), with a close understanding of the business needs and the ability to design, develop and deliver tailored corporate-wide programs or policies that require in-depth functional expertise and subject matter expertise. The so-called three leg stool of HR Services, HR Client Services and HR Centres of Excellence. Fundamental to each aspect is being very clear about what ‘value’ is to the organization, whether that be better patient care, shareholder dividend or more effective use of taxes.
    To Laurie’s points above:
    1) An accountable and efficient Payroll department is important, but they will only pay according to the informatiion that they receive. So at a deeper level, the organization has a duty to ensure that all of it’s processes are optimized, efficient and understood. managers have to be equally accountable for the information they provide to Payroll, not just those in Payroll.
    2) Given the generational attitudes of younger workers, the growth of the Corporate Social Responsibility agenda and legislation, those companies that sanctioned unlawful or illegal activity would soon find it impossible to operate. Operating inside of the law is a duty set not by HR, but by the CEO and encompasses more than just HR. It’s everyone’s responsibility. So it is too far generic to say that it marks a ‘great HR department.
    3) Laurie is right to say that the role of HR is not to act as internal police force, but to advise, guide and where necessary, flag where risks lay. Where managers (for whatever reason) choose to ignore or not follow that advice, they should rightly be held accountable.
    4) HR’s role in employee engagement is central – there is good empiral research that shows the link between profit and engaged employees.
    5) Fairness and equity are implied aspects of the contract between employee and employer. HR are the custodians of this relationship, making sure that managers do not act unfairly and inquitiously; however, linked to 3 above, HR cannot force managers to act fairly, but to outline the risks of not doing so.

  4. This has to be the worst article every written on what a Great HR dept does. Clearly you should not be running HR. HR does not pay people, they hire talent (talent aquistion). They should manage benefit packages, inform employees of options they have. You talk about reducing training cost, actually that should not be your goal, it should be to provide training to employees to make the better leaders in the company. Wow – you have no clue…hahahaha….epic failure on your part, please don’t write or lead by example.

  5. Laurie, you stirred up a hornet’s nest with this one.

    To everyone else, considering that items 2-5 are questionable at many organizations, I don’t think that Laurie is that far off base. She’s talking about foundational, functional requirements of a frontline HR department.

    Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to get back to answering a question about vacation accrual and working on a long-term strategic vision for my company.

  6. If I might offer a proverbial “cut to the chase”, here, my take is that Laurie is saying great HR departments get the basic stuff, the fundamentals, right. The other notions, concepts, practices, philosophies and such being bandied about are wonderful. But absent getting the fundamentals done well, there is no way you can, with a straight face, engage in the other work.

    Try this conversation with your CEO – “Hey, I know we missed getting payroll out, but we have a killer succession plan.”

  7. I find this debate interesting. We in HR are used to doing selfies on our activities driven by varying perspectives, many of which perhaps inherited from our long careers or current roles. Laurie has touched basics in a simple way, which is not easy . I dont see it as a cynical view on other hr activities or strategies at higher levels or closer to business needs. But between these ends , what perhaps we often miss out is the real purpose of an HR leader in a commercial setting. I have seen that we get so obsessed with internal HR and see even CSR from a business perspective, that we miss out the need for connecting with outside community needs. We have an ombudsman role here, even if we are standing inside the organisation. I am more inclined to view HR work inside a company as something that should help community outside at large. We need to bridge the two, and in that we may need to emphasise again and again that ultimately business is for people and not the other way round. Essentially , i need say here that good people management practices converge to better community health.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *