What’s in a name: ‘HR’ or ‘personnel’? Does it really matter?

What’s the dilemma that obsesses so many HR departments and keeps them in fired-up discussions for hours? Is it the decision to outsource? To introduce the business partner model? To prove to the board how HR is aligned with business strategy? No, it’s… erm… what HR should call itself.

Just look at the range of titles for HR departments and you will find everything from ‘people and culture’ to ‘human capital managers’ and ‘talent resources’. Even at a high-level conference earlier this year, the first question asked in a panel discussion was: should we call ourselves HR or personnel?

Senior HR directors in strategic, board-level roles regard this debate with contempt. “Never has so much time and energy been wasted on such utter b******s,” one public sector HR director said when asked to comment on this topic.

Vance Kearney, vice-president HR EMEA at Oracle, takes this further: “There’s too much focus on the name of the function rather than on the contribution and talent within the function. Worrying about titles if the fundamentals are wrong is like giving Quasimodo a ‘what not to wear’ makeover.”

Human remains?

That doesn’t stop many in the HR profession assessing whether their job title is the latest must-have, or fretting about being seen in public wearing last season’s cast-off.

By all accounts, in many circles the term ‘human resources’ is no longer in mode. When we published our union research earlier this year (Personnel Today, 30 January) – where unions bemoaned the demise of the personnel function, and complained that the term ‘human resources’ was too impersonal, implying that people were just a resource to be exploited – we were deluged with responses from readers in passionate defence of the term ‘personnel’. (See ‘Has ‘HR’ had its day?’, below).

But why this obsession with titles in HR? Other departments such as finance and operations don’t waste their time wringing their hands and wondering what title will get them more credibility in the business. At the end of the day, does it really matter what outfit the HR profession is dressed in?

John Maxted, managing director of recruitment consultancy Digby Morgan, says the reason the HR profession continues to wrestle with the problem of what to call itself is that “it is still in search of a term that will give it an equal footing with other support functions and a true reflection of its value to an organisation”.

Looking at history, the personnel moniker of the 1960s and 1970s has its origins steeped in the old welfare function, when it was widely regarded in disparaging terms by line management and other functions, according to Maxted.

Even a rebrand to HR in the 1980s – which saw the profession aligning itself more closely with what the business wanted to achieve, and attracting an influx of specialists from other functions in the process – still did not earn the profession the status it craved. In many organisations, HR is disparagingly referred to as ‘human remains’.

Maxted adds: “The response of many in the HR profession to continued criticism has been to become more introspective. They react by telling themselves how important they are rather than promoting the value of the profession to the business and recognising where they can continue to develop to add even greater value.”

Each to his own

Yet for many, what the HR department is called comes down to personal taste. Debbie Whitaker, group head, people product management at Standard Chartered Bank, says: “We get different titles as different HR functions have different views about what their role is, and this is often dependent on what their conceptual model is for the role of HR. We tend to use the term HR organisational effectiveness managers – as their role is to configure HR policies, products and procedures to reflect the business context in which they’re working.”

Ewan McCulloch, HR director at office supplies firm Staples UK Retail, agrees that any name changes are driven by individuals rather than organisational need.

He says: “I remember a chief executive in a business I was in saying: ‘I don’t employ human resources. Change it back to personnel and training.’ So it was changed. The words are probably more important to the individuals within the department than to anyone else.”

Passionately attached

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why some are so passionately attached to one title or another.

For example, when Clare Chapman was group personnel director at Tesco, she says she had to call her department ‘personnel’ because her employees didn’t know what HR meant.

In another retail environment, Tracey Killen, personnel director at the John Lewis Partnership, says: “The debate is irrelevant to us. Personnel accurately describes what we do.”

Yet for every person who likes a particular term, you will find one who doesn’t.

‘People departments’ are coming into vogue in both the public and private sector. Angela O’Connor and David Fairhurst, for example, are now chief people officers at the National Policing Improvement Agency and McDonald’s respectively, while at Cambridgeshire County Council, Stephen Moir has recently chosen the title ‘director of people and policy’.

Moir feels the term personnel conjures up too much of the “tea and sympathy/welfare support function from which the term first originated”, and prefers the new title “which to me is perhaps easier to understand and properly reflects the broader remit of my role”.

This term may be in fashion but it doesn’t suit everyone. Jane Saunders, partner at HR transformation consultancy Orion Partners, finds the ‘people’ term “somewhat patronising”.

“Managing people and getting the best out of them is a line responsibility, so calling anyone chief people officer misses the point,” she says.

See how this debate goes round in circles? If this is all a question of personal taste, then surely what really matters is what the business wants. And, in reality, the business doesn’t actually care.

Sphere of influence

Jo Causon, director, marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, insists that it is by contribution to business goals rather than title that HR will gain greater recognition.

“The function and its sphere of influence is infinitely more important than its name,” she says. “Whether a title is HR, organisational development or talent management officer, it is the work done to support business development and growth, aims and objectives that will help define the contribution to an organisation and, subsequently, make an impact.”

Even HR’s professional body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says the profession should stop obsessing about titles and just get on with the job.

Vanessa Robinson, adviser, organisation and resourcing at the CIPD, says: “There is still the perception that HR is thought of as the poor cousin to other functions, and some people do get hung up on their titles. But this just doesn’t matter the delivery of good people management processes is the important bit. If a name can help you do that more effectively then fine, but the name in itself won’t make a difference.”

Nor should HR just rebrand itself for the sake of it, or as a bid to gain buy-in from the business. “Changing the name without fundamentally changing what you’re delivering won’t fool anyone,” says Saunders.

“The business doesn’t really give a damn what you’re called and will just find any ‘rebranding’ exercise irritating if it’s not underpinned by a new and improved service. Successful HR departments focus more on what they need to deliver rather than hide behind the latest jargon.”

In other words, it’s not what you wear but how you wear it.

Has ‘HR’ had its day?

Donna Bennett, personnel manager, Clark & Partners

“While HR sounds ‘trendy’ and ‘forward thinking’, it implies people can be ‘processed’ in the same way as any other company resource. We did not want our staff to feel undermined or undervalued by this and so adopted the term personnel, which we felt has a much softer edge, but still provides a specific identity and retains some of the formality which the function must at times demonstrate.”

Barbara Gould, central services manager, Arri (GB)

“The word resource means something to be used. Personnel, I feel, has always meant you are dealing with people and all that implies.”

Beverley Abdulla, HR manager, AT Engine Controls

“Employees struggle with seeing HR as another arm of management that merely pays lip service to employee welfare. It is up to HR professionals to raise the profile within their organisations so employees are aware that HR is multi-functional and can be both business focused and have that all important personal touch.”

Sue Sturman, HR manager, Woodberry Bros & Haines

“I believe the name of the department is totally irrelevant. It is how HR people deal with the employees that counts, not what you are called.”

Brian Tempest, admin officer, HR, Leeds East Homes

“Personnel relations seems more appropriate it is a more relaxing approach than human resources.”

Dave Hewitt, Lancashire

“Personnel has the magic word ‘person’ within it. The phrase ‘human resources’ may well have become the industry standard, but that does not make it acceptable. The diminutive ‘HR’ is even worse and reduces people to a simple commodity, or to their simple biological descriptor, along the same lines as ‘IT’.”

What do you think? E-mail your comments to [email protected]

5 Responses to What’s in a name: ‘HR’ or ‘personnel’? Does it really matter?

  1. Avatar
    Bishop James 9 May 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    The title ‘Human Resources’ is the product of an agenda which is intent on de-personalising everything.

    When and wherever possible, I try to encourage the re-introduction of ‘Personnel’ departments, including within the church.

    At the end of the day the most important thing is how staff are treated. This should be the overarching priority and in this regard Personnel is a far more appropriate tag than Human Resources. Personnel Support department might be even better.

    • Avatar
      Scyptical Chymist 5 Jun 2014 at 5:15 pm #

      Yes. Real managers think of resourceful humans rather than “human resources”. The latter phrase implies a human being is no different from an inanimate resource such as a desk or a computer. It is part of the box ticking,non-imaginative, dehumanising culture of the “managerialist” or bean counter. A true leader-manager will have nothing to do with this attitude

    • Avatar
      Surfnut 27 Mar 2015 at 6:11 pm #

      I could not agree more. See my comment.

  2. Avatar
    Groucho_Lenin 13 May 2014 at 1:43 pm #

    I prefer the designation “Hiring and Employee Services.” It eliminates the control freaks the field usually attracts, takes “HR” down to a proper level and charges its staff with service to the company and specifically to the employees. It’s a term I invented. Send me a few quid every time you use it. Thanks in advance.

  3. Avatar
    Surfnut 27 Mar 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    Despite some arrogant and possibly rather thoughtless assertions to the contrary by HR personnel (in the quotes above) words DO matter. Names add dignity, and dignity, for human beings of all employment categories, cannot be over-valued. After all, are we not concerned to make our working lives and the atmosphere at work more pleasant and enjoyable? What is work really for, otherwise? One day it will all be over, and we shall be left with just memories of the great and beautiful friends we have spent time working with and loved.

    I have noticed that most people (those not engaged in HR) who express a preference, hate the tern ‘human resources’. It appear to serve no outstandingly useful
    purpose. Within
    each of our businesses our staff are like family and we feel protective
    towards them. A company’s nomenclature should reflect that. Staff are NOT resources any more than soap is a form of fuel. Yes you can burn it, but it does
    not smell too good. People can be seen as consumables too; a terrible truth. Let’s face it – This term really is redundant.
    Goodness only knows why it ever gained popularity. Did it come from the USA? I fear so.

    We have highly skilled
    people who are our personnel or staff. Show them more respect on the front-side
    by correcting this foolish and disrespectful term. It may help with a sense of
    pride as the culture adjusts in other small but significant ways. And all
    culture needs correction from time to time. It is only a phrase but, if anyone
    had not noticed, words are almost the most important things in life.

    Just stop it.