What is human resources management (and how does your future depend on it)?

April 19, 2021 - 23 min read


Jump to section

What is "human resources"?

What is human resources management?

Areas of human resources management

Considerations when choosing a human resources career path

HR generalist vs. HR specialist

HR in the 21st century

Human resources departments have been around for at least 100 years. Why is it still so commonly overlooked, particularly among start-ups and new enterprises?

The idea sounds simple: ensure the business has the right people, in the right place, at the right time, motivated and able to do what the business needs at that moment. 

In practice, HR has become more complicated — and more important. Human resources management encompasses many roles in the modern company. HR is called on to understand (and improve) employee well-being and productivity, to manage hiring and firing, and to assist with training and employee benefits.  The common thread is people. 

So, what is it about the (not-so) mysterious HR role that leaves people fumbling over their words when asked to describe what a human resources manager does?

The answer appears to be a lack of information. This article will teach everything you need to know about human resources management, including:

  • What HR management is (and how forward-thinking HR professionals are transforming the field)
  • The different areas involved in human resources management (HRM)
  • What to consider if you’re looking to take on an HR manager’s role

Thought-provoking insights. Content and resources you can use. Sign up to receive the latest from BetterUp.


What is "human resources"?

Human Resources is the business department responsible for all employee-related matters. 

Such matters include:

  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Involvement in performance-related discussions
  • Employee compensation and benefits
  • Onboarding
  • Training
  • Labor and employee relations

The term is often used to describe people who work in the HR department, much the same as the term sales can be used to describe both staff and the department for which they work.

It’s an essential component of modern business, particularly when it comes to recruiting new staff, as well as keeping up to date with legal requirements. In a small company, HR might be just one person using an array of vendors. 

In addition to traditional HR functions as listed above, effective human resources departments also add value to a company by:

  • Enhancing competitiveness by lifting innovation, flexibility, and creativity across a business
  • Developing key competencies in both employees and across an organization
  • Effectively tying compensation to performance appraisals and individual competencies
  • Managing employees more effectively
  • Growing team leaders’ management skills
  • Apply new approaches to workflows and process, and managing the integration of new business technology
  • Supporting and improving employee well-being, social connection, growth, and agility across remote and diverse workforces

What is human resources management?

Every great department needs capable and experienced leadership, and human resources is no exception.

Human resources management is the strategic approach to managing people, getting the most out of your employees, and improving the company culture and environment.

Increasingly, HR management is becoming focused on improving workplace culture and employee well-being, with forward-thinking HR professionals incorporating ideas such as mindfulness to achieve a holistic approach that is no longer centered simply on performance.

human resource tools

(Image Source)

The human resources manager brings together the tools at hand, their experience, and their expertise, to form a comprehensive approach to people management, recruitment, onboarding, performance management, safety, and employee benefits.


Ready to take your leaders to the next level? Try a demo of BetterUp.

Areas of human resources management

Human resource management (HRM) is a varied profession and involves a number of competencies that may be used on a day to day basis.

Let’s examine the 7 key areas of human resource management:

1. Recruitment and selection

New employee recruitment is the area that HR professionals are most often recognized for, though it’s far from the only aspect of the job.

When a new job position opens up, human resource departments are responsible for creating job descriptions, advertising the position, interviewing applicants, determining best fit, creating job offers, and negotiating remuneration. Many companies have or work with recruitment specialists.

This process may involve several stages of interviews, and include the use or HR tools like preselection tools. Progressive HR professionals use a variety of tools to reach more diverse pools of talent and reduce bias in the hiring process to keep fresh skills and perspectives coming into the company.

2. Performance management

Performance management is the first aspect of the human resources role, and it begins as soon as the new employee is brought on board.

Performance management measures people against their role requirements and KPIs, includes regular structured performance reviews, provides feedback on performance, and identifies areas for improvement.

The term is also often used to describe managing poor performance, wherein an HR professional would work with the individual to lift their performance to a satisfactory standard.

However, strong performance management should be in place for all levels of employees, not just poor performers.

In fact, the current trend in HR management is toward continuous performance development and coaching, with many major companies having dropped the traditional performance review completely. 

3. Learning and development

A key aspect of the successful human resources department is ongoing employee learning and development.

Learning and development should not be thought of as remediation, although sometimes an employee is lacking a critical skill needed for the role or is weak in an area that has to be addressed for them to do their job well. It is crucial that HR departments recognize such areas and provide access to quality training to upskill employees.

More and more, though, learning and development opportunities are seen as a benefit by employees who want to stay relevant or learn new skills to rise through the organization or pursue other career aspirations. Progressive HR L&D professionals think about employee development much more broadly than creating course or training programs. 

In addition, because technology and the business environment change so fast now, companies often need their employees to take on new tasks or even entirely different roles. HR has to ensure that employees have access and support to learn whatever they need, when they need it. That typically means some sort of on-the-job training (OJT) with peer-coaching or shadowing rather than a traditional classroom or online training program.

Learning and development can be role-specific, but it can also involve company-related training (such as new product or service training), as well as training on health and safety procedures.

Progressive HR managers often include resilience and well-being-centered training (such as mindfulness and stress reduction techniques) as part of workforce learning and development.

4. Leadership development and succession planning

Making sure the business has all of the skills and capabilities it needs to execute, in all the right parts of the business, ready and able at any given moment is the core of HR’s responsibility. That includes having leaders, and the right types of leaders, throughout the organization. 

 Here’s the problem:

  • Leaders leave
  • What the business needs from leaders changes
  • More leadership is needed

Succession planning is essentially contingency planning for the reality that people leave. It's especially crucial with regard to senior leadership. Even companies with the best retention plans experience this. It's a major challenge, especially when you consider it costs nearly $20,000 to replace someone, often far more for a leader.

It means having a plan if someone leaves (especially if they are a manager or senior-level employee), and having an idea of who within an organization can replace them.

Leadership development is a special area of HR that keeps a pipeline of leaders coming up through the organization and supports and strengthens the skills and effectiveness of the people already in leadership positions. In more progressive agile companies, decision-making and responsibility are pushed lower in the organization. Those companies need more people to be leaders for their teams and groups. 

In addition, many people in leadership positions don’t have the “soft skills” or self-awareness to guide their teams through change and uncertainty. Traditional leadership programs fail to develop leaders for the challenges they face today. Coaching for personal and professional skills and peer support can help leaders evolve with the demands of the job.

Leadership development and succession planning is all about maintaining access to in-demand talent, recruiting for skill gaps, and providing sufficient growth opportunities for internal talent development.

5. Compensation and benefits

Fair, performance-based compensation is key to motivating and retaining employees; hence it’s another crucial part of HRM.

This involves wage and salary negotiations, evaluating commission plans, and creating and defining additional employee benefits such as:

  • Healthcare (including dental, vision, alternative,etc.)
  • Company cars
  • Phones and laptops
  • Holiday and sick leave entitlements
  • Childcare
  • Pension plans

Benefits has become a more interesting topic as many companies have workforces that span four or five generations. 

In addition, employee wellness, mental health and well-being have become a top concern for companies everywhere. Employees and potential employees don’t don’t just want a few wellness perks or an EAP program for clinical mental health coverage — they expect companies to offer benefits that truly support them in their wellness and mental health.

employee benefits

(Image Source)

6. HR information systems

HRM information systems (AKA the HRIS) support all of the aspects of the human resources department.

For example, a Learning Management System (LMS) helps with learning and development, Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) assist with recruitment, and so on.

Other such systems include payroll and performance management systems.

7. HR data and analytics

HRMs can also leverage the data captured in their information systems to their advantage.

By employing HR analytics, the human resource professional can analyze company trends, define staff turnover, ramp rates, and the impact of the recruitment process, among other things.

With a trend toward working remotely, HR managers are finding use in people analytics tools that reduce costs and enable better management decisions and use of resources. However, this needs to be balanced with issues of privacy, trust, and concerns around micromanagement.

Considerations when choosing a human resources career path

If you’re passionate about human resource development and you’re looking to be an HR leader, then there are a few things to consider. 

That’s because there are a number of different pathways into HR management, and different forms of qualifications you might seek depending on your preferred pathway, and existing experience and expertise.

So, let’s take a look at three considerations to make when choosing a human resources career path.


The first place to start when considering a career in human resources is to determine what level of education you’re interested in undertaking.

At an undergraduate level (Bachelor’s degree), it is recommended that HR candidates undertake a fairly broad and balanced curriculum across disciplines, including:

  • Behavioral sciences
  • Liberal arts
  • Social sciences

Other areas for further study that are desirable for those looking to pursue a human resources role include:

  • Development of oral and written communication skills
  • Business and economics
  • Labor relations and labor law
  • Organizational development and behavior
  • Marketing

Do you need a Human Resources degree to be an HR manager?

Though it is not always necessary to have a Master's degree to secure a role as a human resources role, it is certainly desirable and advantageous.

Most often this comes in the form of a Master of Science in HR, with a specific focus in industrial relations, organizational behavior, or organizational development.

Because many human resources manager roles require at least one year’s experience in a similar role, it may be suitable to start out in an internship, learning how to apply your academic knowledge to a real-life situation before seeking a management role.

HR positions

Human resources is not, in itself, a position. Rather it is a department comprised of many different positions, some of which are specific to industry or company size.

Positions in human resources can best be broken up into three categories: entry-level, mid-level, and upper-level roles.

Entry-level HR positions:

HR Intern: Paid or unpaid, HR interns are essentially learning the ropes, with little in the way of responsibility.

HR Assistant: HR assistants are like interns but are paid, and are in longer-term positions.

HR Trainee: HR trainees are typically being trained for specific mid-level HR roles.

Staffing Coordinator: Assists with the recruitment and new hire orientation processes.

Recruiter: Takes care of the day to day tasks involved with recruiting new team members.

Mid-level HR positions

HR Manager: A flexible mid-level role, HR Managers manage entry-level HR staff, and report to senior HR leadership such as the HR Director.

Sourcer: High-level version of the recruiter.

Trainer: HR specialists who focus on training and upskilling employees.

HR Generalist: Oversees all general HR duties.

Upper-level HR positions

HR Specialist Manager: HR Specialist Managers have a specialty in an area and a title that reflects that, such as benefits manager, training manager, recruiting manager, and so on.

HR Director or VP of HR: The highest rank in HR, HR Directors have HR Managers reporting through to them.

Transitioning to HR 

Not all HR professionals begin their careers in human resources roles.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for employees to transition into HR positions once they have a better understanding of what the department does for a company.

If you’re considering transitioning into the HR field, you should:

  • Discuss this desire with your HR rep or manager
  • Consider undertaking further study, such as an HR management degree
  • Find out if your employer might be able to assist with costs towards education
  • Volunteer to assist with HR duties to gain experience
  • Find HR communities online to learn from and network with

Ready to unlock the potential in your organization?

HR generalist vs. HR specialist

There are two main kinds of HR employees: the Generalist and the Specialist.

hr generalist vs hr specialist

(Image Source)

HR generalists are responsible for a broad range of activities, including:

  • Company staffing
  • Training and development
  • Onboarding
  • Managing a diverse workplace
  • Overseeing the compensation program
  • Administering employee benefits
  • Developing HR policies and processes
  • Ensuring such policies are adhered to
  • Future-proofing and ensuring upcoming HR needs can be met

Entry-level HR Generalist positions tend to be titled assistant or administrator, with mid and upper-level role examples including:

  • HR Generalist
  • HR Department manager
  • Chief HR officer
  • HR Business Partner
  • People Services Manager 

The HR Specialist, on the other hand, has a more specific technical knowledge in a given area of HR.

Such roles tend to be more common in larger workplaces, which require specific experience and expertise in order to meet the diverse needs of the organization.

There are five main areas of HR specialization:

HR development

This role tends to be centered around training, with tasks including developing and running training programs, maintaining employee training participation records, and identifying opportunities for further development and improvements to the training schedule.

Workforce planning and employment

This specialist position involves interviewing and recruitment, as well as developing and implementing a recruiting strategy, processing transfers terminations, and promotions, and orchestrating pre-employment tests.

Employee and labor relations

This role is especially important in companies with workers unions, as the roles often involve interpreting and negotiating union contracts and collective agreements, resolving grievances, and assisting department supervisors.

Total rewards

This branch of HR deals with compensation, job descriptions, benefits analysis, and salary administration.

Risk management

All companies involve some form of risk to employee health and safety, some more than others. Risk Management specialists form and administer H&S programs, conduct inspections, maintain and review accident records, and prepare government reports where necessary.

HR in the 21st century

Human resources management sometimes gets a bad rap because HR is the source of many rules and policies. Beyond the necessary forms, however, HR is really about the people of an organization and making sure they are ready and able for whatever the business needs. HR is an exciting field for anyone who is passionate about helping people in their company have what they need to do the work of the company effectively, today and over time.

This is a great time for HR. Progressive HR managers are finding new ways to support and develop talent, help businesses meet their strategic needs, and improve employee well-being through forward thinking initiatives. They have new tools and new mandates to do this important work.

By now, you should have a thorough understanding of what human resources management entails, why it is important to business, and the steps to take to become a human resources manager.

To summarize:

Human resources management is the strategic approach to managing and supporting people in the workplace, including hiring, onboarding, training, and employee relationship management.

It’s a vital part of modern businesses and the people-powered future ahead that rely on realizing more of the potential of people to perform successfully. 

Interested in taking talent development to the next level? Learn how we can help.

Thought-provoking insights. Content and resources you can use. Sign up to receive the latest from BetterUp.



Published April 19, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

Read Next

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.