Human Resources Management (HRM) is arguably the most misunderstood department in any organisation. “A necessary evil,” “Full of incompetent employees,” “Only has management’s interests in mind,” are just some of the criticisms waged against it. But companies could not operate without an effective HR function, whether in-house or outsourced. HR plays a critical role in managing talent within an organisation and ensuring the human resources, i.e. the employees, have the tools and training they need to do their jobs…and do them well…and thus to keep the business running smoothly.

HRM has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Where once upon a time the HR team was an operational function, implementing what the executive decreed, now the HR department is a critical enabler and contributes to strategy formation. HR is expected to recommend processes, approaches, and business solutions that will improve the overall capacity of an organisation’s employees and therefore the organisation’s commercial success. So, as we consider our cultural heritage this Heritage Day, what has HR inherited from other disciplines?

Legal complexity

Employment legislation is an increasingly complex subject. The exploitation of workers was a common feature of employment for centuries; modern legislation seeks to protect workers’ rights and ensure acceptable working conditions for all. While there are still many countries in the world where people work in less than optimal circumstances, globally there is a growing emphasis on fair and equitable labour practices. Here in South Africa, our own history of oppression and exploitation has led to labour laws designed with workers’ rights as the first priority, backed by an infrastructure that upholds them and supports individuals who feel their rights have been abused.

The modern HR department needs a solid grasp of labour law, industry codes of practice and any other legislation and regulation that impacts on employees, such as health and safety. While HR practitioners do not have to be lawyers, they need to understand the rules and ensure the company does not break them. If an employee accuses the organisation of a breach, HR must know how to investigate and resolve the situation in full compliance with the law. The legal department still has a role to play in any conflict that is escalated to the courts or other form of legal redress, but HR has inherited much of the job of the legal department in keeping the organisation on the right side of labour law and protecting it from violations, either by error or omission.

Let’s communicate

Internal communications and HR perform different functions, but there is a need for them to work closely together in a way they might not have in the past. The internal communications team is not just a vehicle through which other departments can broadcast messages to the organisation. Good communications departments have a strategy and a plan for ensuring everyone in the organisation knows what’s going on and feels part of the bigger picture. The role of comms is to eliminate silos and encourage cohesion in a workforce. Sometimes, particularly when the economy or the company is experiencing a downturn, comms must convey difficult messages to staff. In these circumstances, it is vital that comms and HR work as one to present a consistent and aligned perspective to all employees.

To measure the mood of the workforce, historically the communications department might have conducted a staff satisfaction survey, then letting employees know how satisfied or dissatisfied they actually were. Organisations with the welfare of their employees at heart paid attention to the results and attempted to respond to the areas of most dissatisfaction; but as often as not the surveys…and the responses…were forgotten within a few months. Now we look for much more than job satisfaction among employees; we strive for engagement. Engaged organisations have strong values that are clearly communicated and shared by employer and employees. High levels of engagement exist where there is trust and mutual respect. The HR department has always been responsible for employee relations; now its focus has broadened to embrace employee engagement.

Employee engagement is about much more than communication. It is about positive attitudes and behaviours that lead to improved business outcomes and employees who feel pride in and loyalty to the organisation. But none of this can happen without good communications. So while HR might have inherited employee engagement from the communications department, in an effective organisation the two teams will cooperate closely to achieve a positive outcome.

Technically speaking…

Who remembers when HR was called “Personnel”? Some companies still use the term, but it reflects an outdated way of thinking about and managing an organisation’s biggest asset – its people. Personnel management is largely an administrative function, concerned with recruitment, pay packages, leave allowance, etc. Human Resources management is about managing people, ensuring the organisation has the employees with the right knowledge, skills and experience to help the business achieve its goals. But while the modern HR manager is a talent scout and talent developer rather than an administrator, those clerical tasks still need to be done. Nothing will sink employee morale faster than a failure of the payroll process. And as technology has evolved, so have personnel systems. HR is now home to some of the most sophisticated software in the organisation, with links to SARS, pension funds and other external entities. HR has proudly inherited the capacity to manage complex information technology for the good of all employees in its care.

Shared responsibilities

While there still exists some antipathy towards HR departments amongst employees, enlightened organisations understand HRM and have positioned it strategically to add value to both employer and employees. HR staff, because of their access to sensitive information and the risk of conflicts of interests, may need to keep their distance socially from co-workers in other departments, but all employees, regardless of their role, work for the same organisation and share the common goal of making the business the best it can be. You could say that HR has inherited the concept of “Ubuntu”: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

Contact us

EOH Human Capital Solutions can help you integrate HRM into your organisation’s
DNA. We are experts in HR Strategy, Organisational design and Performance Management among others. If you would like more information contact us on 012 940 6300 or

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