What Is Human Resources? Definition and Examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 8 October 2022 | Published 22 July 2021

Updated 8 October 2022

Published 22 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Human resources, or HR, departments handle an exceptionally broad set of responsibilities critical for organisations' success. Whether you are an employee or a manager, understanding when to approach your HR department with a concern, problem or suggestion can help you be more effective in the workplace. Learning more about what HR professionals do also might encourage you to explore a career in the field. In this article, we define what human resources is and explain the various functions HR departments and their teams perform.

What is human resources?

Human resources (HR) is the name many corporations give to the department or external service responsible for tasks that involve how a company treats its employees or how employees engage with their workplace. The goal of human resources is to create a satisfying, productive, and healthy environment by maintaining a high-quality administrative infrastructure. This means using resources—whether people, technology or services—to learn about and meet employees' needs and wants.

Each company has some flexibility in deciding how extensive its HR department is, or if it wants to outsource core HR functions to a third party. At a minimum, companies need professionals who are able to create and enforce policies that maintain a safe workplace that meets legal requirements.

Related: What Does Human Resources Do? 11 HR Roles and Responsibilities

What do people in human resources do?

HR professionals perform a variety of functions for their organisations. Here are some of the key responsibilities they handle:

Hiring and recruiting

HR professionals often help their companies find great candidates to fill open positions, or they help a company decide which positions to create or eliminate, so as to match business levels and budget availability. They might draft job postings, monitor hiring websites or rely on their networking skills to source qualified leads. When HR employees find a candidate they want to learn more about, they reach out and arrange an interview. From the candidate's perspective, they can ask the HR representative questions about how to prepare for the interview or about the opportunity itself.

Many companies also have job applicants interview in stages. Applicants would first meet with an HR representative before talking to the manager they would work with should they get the position. This process enables HR experts to provide their opinions on whether an individual would be a good fit for the organisation's culture.

Related: What Is an Employment Verification Letter? (With Examples)

Onboarding

When a candidate accepts a company's job offer, HR professionals start the onboarding process. This entails collecting documents, filling out new hire paperwork, inputting the employee into the company's email and other electronic systems, and notifying managers of the employee's start date. For example, if a company hires someone from another country, the HR department helps them secure necessary visas and determine a reasonable timeline for their relocation.

When new employees arrive to begin work, they often undergo an introduction to the company's workplace policies and receive a more informal welcome to their new environment. An HR employee is often the trusted team member who can ensure new hires have successful starts in their respective roles, especially since they're prepared to clarify questions about policies.

Related: How to Create an Onboarding Checklist (With Definition)

Training

HR professionals often have expertise in training new employees. They may not have specialised knowledge specific to a technical role, but they can implement and oversee best training practices. For instance, a concierge starting at a new hotel might review their training schedule with HR. Although the new hire might learn directly from other service staff, the HR team might provide learning materials and digital resources to guide them, and they might eventually conduct an assessment to ensure the new concierge is ready to work independently.

Many companies also continue to train employees who've worked with them for a while. They might offer training sessions as a professional development opportunity, or they might teach a recently promoted team member new skills. HR staff can also facilitate these processes.

Related: The Importance of Training Employees (With 11 Benefits)

Payroll

HR departments usually oversee payroll. Sometimes they help companies determine what salary to offer new hires, and other times, they act as administrators, making sure all employees receive proper pay. Often, HR teams manage the technology and accompanying policies employees use to record their hours worked. For instance, an HR manager might research different employee clock-in devices—such as fingerprint scanners or card-based systems—plan their installation, teach employees how to use them, and review labour reports daily to ensure there are no irregularities that could affect pay.

Employees often have questions about their paychecks, or might want to learn how extra responsibilities or schedule changes would affect their compensation. HR professionals have access to the information these employees need and can address any other pay-related concerns.

Related: What Is an HRIS? A Concise Guide on How to Choose One

Benefits management

HR professionals understand the statutory requirements that dictate which benefits employers have to offer employees. This enables them to ensure that their companies operate responsibly and that employees enjoy the benefits to which they're entitled. Many companies choose to offer additional benefits to attract talented candidates. HR departments research different potential offerings, negotiate agreements with companies, and implement these extra benefits throughout the organisation.

For instance, an employee expecting a child can clarify their maternity leave rights with their HR manager. In the same conversation, the employee could suggest that the company look into offering gym memberships as an additional benefit.

Related: What Are Employee Benefits and 17 Types of Employee Benefits

Employee well-being

Employee well-being largely depends on the quality of their working environment. This involves the physical components of a workplace as well as its culture and overall supportiveness. HR managers facilitate the initiatives, programmes, and opportunities that can collectively contribute to an uplifting and healthful place to work. Part of this process also requires allowing employees to share what would help them thrive and acting on feedback when possible.

For example, an HR department might decide to begin a comprehensive employee well-being program. This could entail buying new office furniture so employees are more comfortable, offering healthy snacks throughout the workday, raising awareness about mental health services, and planning a social hour so colleagues can get to know each other better.

Related: Improving Collaboration at the Workplace

Conflict resolution

Workplace conflicts take many forms, each requiring a unique response. Sometimes, two or more employees have a professional disagreement that escalates and requires mediation. Other times, a manager and their employees experience a sustained conflict. HR employees understand why these conflicts usually arise, but they're also prepared to collect information from employees to understand the specifics of a situation. This enables them to develop a conflict resolution approach tailored to each dispute.

To restore good relations, HR employees oversee productive conversations where all parties can share their perspectives. They then guide team members toward a mutually acceptable and progress-oriented outcome. For example, an employee who feels their colleague isn't contributing to the team might feel comfortable discussing the problem with HR first. An HR employee can meet with the relevant manager to understand their expectations and delegation habits and then begin a conversation between all parties to clarify misunderstandings and enforce shared responsibility.

Discipline

If an employee does something unacceptable, HR often intervenes to address the situation. An employee might make a genuine mistake, or they might intentionally engage in inappropriate behaviour. Since companies have to handle these situations carefully—protecting employees and clients without reacting too harshly—they often rely on HR professionals' guidance.

HR employees typically use a combination of company policy and expert judgement to determine how to discipline the employee appropriately. They also account for legal considerations and the company's history with the individual. For instance, a longtime employee who does great work but suddenly arrives late several days in a row might be called to have a conversation with an HR team member. A new employee caught misrepresenting their work is more likely to face more severe consequences.

Related: How To Write an Employee Warning Letter (With Examples)

Documentation

To protect themselves and their employees, organisations rely on thorough documentation of all major workplace and personnel developments. HR departments often lead these efforts, ensuring they record all significant changes for later reference. Documentation is particularly important when dealing with employees. It enables a company to prove it upheld its responsibilities at all points in time and never took advantage of or improperly treated someone.

For instance, a recently terminated employee might claim the company improperly fired them. However, if there were a series of events where HR met with the employee and explained the company's concerns, documentation can prove the company fulfilled its responsibility. Even employee handbooks that new hires sign act as documentation proving an individual agreed to their employer's terms and conditions.

Related: Management Skills: Definition and Examples

Performance reviews

Companies use performance reviews to determine raises and individuals' potential for promotion. HR professionals collect the information managers need to review the quality of an employee's work. They might interview employees, speak with supervisors and review key performance indicators to ensure their assessments are comprehensive. Sometimes, HR representatives are present for or lead performance reviews, directly explaining to employees how they can improve their performance and highlighting how they already excel.

Related: What Does an HR Manager Do? (With Definition and Guidelines)

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