Is “HR Department” Outdated or is “People Operations” Just the Latest Trend?

“[Human resources is] like what a malevolent AI would come up with if they were trying to sound like they […] don’t simply consider them food to be consumed at the end of the machine. It has the least humanity of any name I could come up with.”

Jay Hanlon, People & Ops consultant

HR is dead.

For roughly two years I’ve been charged with writing expert content for our loyal “HR” readers. For roughly two years I’ve argued that “HR manager” is absolutely the wrong word. 

When this post came up on the roster, I begged our head of marketing to let me have it. Little did he know that he was about to play the part of Pandora

Make no mistake: HR, People Ops, what people think, and what those departments do are very dramatic debates with intense arguments from every side (and then some). Naturally, I intend to do a reverse somersault in pike position from 10 meters. 

(Apparently, that’s a difficult dive according to… diving people. )

While I’m certainly no diving expert, I am a bit of a maestro when it comes to rigorous research routines so you can bet I intend to make a splash:

(Don’t worry – that’s the extent of my diving puns.) 

People Ops vs. HR: What’s the difference?

“We can call ourselves the ‘Happy Magic Bean Fairy Tale Factory’ (HMBFTF!), but that doesn’t mean we’ll supply magic beans or ensure happy fairy tale endings.”

“Rebranding Human Resources. Let’s Get Real,” HRCloud

There’s the age-old argument that a rose by any other name would smell the same. If you told someone a rose would eat their face if they got too close, though, they’d probably be a whole less likely to find out. 

I’m not saying HR departments actually eat faces, but…

Let’s talk about names, though. Take content writer and copywriter. Do they do the same job? 

If you’re not a content writer, you’d probably say sure. Deep down, a copywriter would know it isn’t true, but they wouldn’t be able to admit it to themselves. 

Kidding. You’ll see my point. 

According to Don Dodds from M16 Marketing, content writing is about education and entertainment while copywriting is about advertising. Far be it from me to question the founder of a marketing agency (last time I did that it did not go well), but the line between content and copywriting is actually pretty blurry to non-existent. 

Sure, my job is to inform, educate, and entertain, but it’s also to clearly communicate the value of Process Street to our readers. Then there are the times I do write shorter copy for landing pages, product pages, ads, etc. Most content writers are in the same boat, so are we really different from copywriters, or do we just have a fancier title?

More importantly, does the same hold true for People Operations and HR departments?

Behind the scenes: People Ops revealed

According to AIHR, People Operations is:

“[…] a strategic business function that focuses on putting the employee first by humanizing impersonal systems and continuously improving employee engagement, development, and retention.”

– Shani Jay, “What is People Operations? The Role and 8 Key Priorities”

So that’s a mouthful. 

GitLab’s definition basically just puts the word “people” in front of words. Gather’s definition is nice and simple: “crafting the employee experience at an organization” and helping companies “empower, engage, and retain employees.”

NGL, those all definitely sound like something a content writer came up with.

So here’s one that gets straight to the point and I can absolutely guarantee was not written by a content writer:

“My primary role is to make Process Street a great place to work. That includes the fun stuff like culture building and the behind-the-scenes operational stuff like efficient processes, thoughtful documentation, and planning.”

Ashley Chain, Director of People & Operations, Process Street

Call me biased, but Process Street actually does have the best People & Operations team. Having been burnt by many an HR department in the past – or more typically, never spoken to them at all – having someone in that role that can pronounce my name and remember my very niche interests is pretty stellar.

Okay, so back on track. In short, People Ops is a holistic approach to meeting the needs of everyone beyond just legal and regulatory compliance. 

Inside HR: The real story

If your company is still sticking with the old “HR manager” title, I’m sure you’ve heard it all, seen it all, and felt it all. You’re trying to balance everyone’s needs singlehandedly – which never works perfectly – and one of the groups you’re working for doesn’t even realize you’re on their side. 

 Nicole Tattrie, Manager of Talent Growth at Salesforce, has a great analogy:

“Think about your favorite restaurant for a moment. Why is it your favorite? […] The atmosphere is welcoming, you’re […] made to feel at home, the beverages are made well, things are served on time, and the food is perfectly cooked. 

Now imagine if the same person [did all those things], and then had to run dishes back and wash them. It’s not to say it can’t be done well; […] it’s just to say that when people are given time to focus on one area of practice, they are also then given the space to do it well.”

So you have to prioritize, and that means the absolutely necessary things – like compliance audits – come first. Then you have recruitment, training, benefits, payroll, conflict resolution, disciplinary action, and termination – plus the wants and needs of leadership, the organization as a whole, and individual employees. 

It’s a lot. 

The average employee or member of leadership probably doesn’t even see half of that, either. Employees will likely only see you face-to-face when something goes wrong and leadership’s only interaction may be making requests (that you may or may not be able to fulfill). 

So Human Resources gets boiled down to rules, regulations, and playing the bad person. 

Plus, as Jay said, it does sort of sound like something a malevolent AI would come up with if it wanted to eat you. No one wants to get eaten. 

People Operations: Rebranding or rethinking?

“A thing is a thing because we say it is and people believe it because of good marketing.”

Leks Drakos, Ph.D., Writer/Editor/Academic

Let’s think about Black Friday for a second. There are all sorts of retail folklore about the origin, but historians agree that the term started in the 1960s.

Philadelphia police started referring to the day before the annual Army-Navy football game as Black Friday because they had to work long hours managing gridlock, bad weather, and all the other unpleasantness of early December in the northeast. 

Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving is also when people started their Christmas shopping so naturally, retailers wanted in on the game. 

The problem was the name: Black Friday, they feared, would be associated with financial disasters like Black Tuesday (1929) and Black Monday (1987). They rebranded it as “Big Friday” in the hope that this would be more appealing to shoppers. 

It didn’t work. Shoppers – and everyone else – already associated that day with “Black Friday.” Changing the name alone wasn’t enough to make the rebranding stick. So businesses found a way to reframe the narrative. 

And, well. Look at it now. 

Back to the original question posed in the title of this post: Is “People Operations” just a way to escape the negative associations with “HR Department” or is there really a difference?

“If people don’t trust HR, they don’t trust your leadership. There are exceptions. You could have an extraordinarily bad HR team where leadership is really trying but usually – almost always – if there’s resentment and fear of HR, there are bigger problems.”

Jay Hanlon, Consultant

Process Street poll: The public has spoken

“How a company values its people will determine if the change is an unnecessary rebrand or if it aligns with its approach to dealing with and supporting the people within the company. Some companies’ HR departments had operated like a People Team anyway, regardless of the title.”

Tony Brown, Customer Success/Partnerships Manager, Process Street

I knew from the start what my answer to that question was, but let’s be honest: I may be your favorite writer here, but you don’t just come for my opinions. 

(And it is my job to ask the same question over and over again to as many people as possible.) 

Since social media makes that practically effortless, I took to LinkedIn and asked the question en masse:

Exactly 50% of the respondents thought “People Team” is essentially just rebranding HR, while slightly less than half were in the new approach camp.

Those who elaborated in the comments were similarly divided – sometimes even with themselves. 

The general consensus was that it doesn’t matter whether it’s called People Operations or HR; it matters what the team does.

“I think [People Operations] is a better first impression, but more importantly, it reminds the people in those departments who we’re supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do. At the end of the day, though, how those people act is the thing that’s going to define whether there’s trust there.”

Jay Hanlon, Consultant

In other words: You can call it Big Friday all you want, but if nothing else is different, it’s always going to be Black Friday.

Do you have a bad brand?

So if you can’t just walk into the office one day and announce that you want to be called People Ops instead of HR (and make it stick), how do you convince employees that you are on their side and not out to get them?

To be perfectly honest, if the foundation isn’t already there in your leadership and your company culture, you can’t. As Jay Hanlon said: You have to build that relationship of trust. 

So let’s talk about trust.

Immediately after accepting the offer from Process Street, I received an email from Ashley Chain (Director of People & Operations) with a timeline of what would happen next, who would be contacting me, and what I needed to do. 

I liked having the information, but, at the time, I was also accustomed to receiving emails from people in HR who’d never be more than a name at the bottom of a generalized memo. That’s not how it went.

Ashley virtually held my hand through every step of my preboarding and onboarding, checked in to make sure everything was going alright, and made sure I knew who to reach out to for various things. 

Two years later, she’s still checking in to see how things are going and meet up for a virtual coffee when our schedules align. That people-first ethos has always been a part of our People & Ops team and – as a result – they’ve earned our trust.

So: Time to sway some hearts and minds.

3 key factors to shift from HR to People Operations

In a word: Technology.

Seems counterintuitive, right? It actually makes a lot of sense. 

There are 3 key factors you need to focus on when shifting from traditional HR to the new and improved People Operations:

I know you’re having some serious doubts about my credibility right now but stick with me. I’ll explain everything. 

Automate repetitive tasks

This really should be a no-brainer for every organization, but you’d be surprised how many still have employees wasting valuable time doing essential but ultimately time-consuming tasks that any basic computer can handle. 

Automation also improves accountability since it documents every step in the process and makes sure every step gets done consistently and correctly. 

Take this New Hire Onboarding Template for example:

It breaks every task down into clear sections with easy-to-follow steps so nothing gets forgotten. Using third-party integrations and Process Street Automations, you can also set tasks to trigger certain events from posting a welcome announcement in Slack to sending the correct paperwork for your new hire to sign. 

All of the necessary paperwork is uploaded into a centralized knowledge base so it’s:

  1. Easy to find when needed
  2. Accurately filled out
  3. Only accessible to the people who should see it

This template (as well as many of our other onboarding templates) includes a variety of features from conditional logic to variables to the ability to embed videos and diagrams into the tasks. That’s all great, of course, but the real bonus is the time it frees up for your HR department.

Remember the analogy about the restaurant? 

Automating your repetitive tasks doesn’t increase the number of employees in the restaurant, but it does provide some helpful little robots to carry the dishes, wash up, and other menial tasks so you can focus on giving your customers – or employees, in this case – the experience they deserve. 

Track your metrics

You use data and metrics to make decisions about every other part of your business, so why aren’t you using it with your employees, too? 

Data provides objective information that can then be used to make the right decisions for both your organization and your employees. 

Let’s say you’ve noticed one of your employees spending a lot of time in the breakroom, away from their desk, or just generally not working. Your presumption might be that that employee is slacking off. 

With the proper analytics, though, you can track their progress and determine whether or not they are slacking off or just finishing their work more quickly. 

“[A workflow] adds structure to the overall system. Managers are busy and work happens fast. When you have a plan in place with reminders along the way, it ensures that it doesn’t get tossed aside.” 

Scott Dust, Associate Professor of Management & Fealy Family Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship at University of Cincinnati and Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf

Every single thing we do at Process Street runs on a workflow. As far as transparency goes, there’s no beating it. Everyone involved knows exactly how much progress has been made and who’s supposed to do what. 

Using the dashboard, department directors can quickly check in on all their teams without having to hover over them every step of the way, which offers us all increased autonomy

You hired your employees for their skills and expertise in a particular area, so you need to trust them to use those skills and expertise to perform their roles. Otherwise, you run the risk of micromanaging your employees, which indicates that you don’t actually trust them to perform. We’ve already talked about how important trust is here. 

If someone is behind on a project, leadership can run through the workflow to find the bottleneck and come up with a solution. This saves everyone loads of time, lets people get on with their work without interruption, and provides support for those who need it when they need it. 

Lead, don’t manage

Think about some of the leadership teams you’ve worked with. I’m sure some of them have been awful, some have been great, and some have just been sort of okay. 

What do the awful ones have in common? What about the great ones?

Generally speaking, if a management team isn’t functioning correctly, it’s because they aren’t leading: They’re only managing. 

Anyone can be a manager, but experts say only about 10% of the workforce has the innate qualities to be a good leader. It’s important to identify and nurture those talents early so that when the time comes, you have someone ready to step into that role.

Career growth plans and employee development plans are a huge part of making that happen. 

A career progression plan will help you and the employee identify where they’d like to go with their career and the timeline for getting there. Meanwhile, a development plan is about fostering the skills and knowledge needed for the employee’s specific role. 

(Check out our career growth template and our development plan template to get started!)

Combined, they create a powerful roadmap for an employee’s life cycle at your company and also let them know that you truly are invested in their success and growth. 

At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, right?

“Success can be defined in many ways. When I look at what people want most when they walk through the doors now, above all things is a sense of belonging and purpose. Have I come to the right company, are they what they say they are, is this for me?  As I have spent my career in learning and development, one thing that has not changed is people’s need to be validated.”

Nicole Tattrie, Salesforce
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Leks Drakos

Leks Drakos, Ph.D. is a rogue academic with a PhD from the University of Kent (Paris and Canterbury). Research interests include HR, DEIA, contemporary culture, post-apocalyptica, and monster studies. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]

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