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Colborn’s Corner: What’s in a name?

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Quentin Colborn

Okay, so we’ve all heard the one about HR standing for Human Remains, but how important are titles to us and what do they say about the role of HR within an organisation?


Over the years the terminology has shifted from terms using ‘welfare’ through to ‘labour’ and then onto ‘personnel’ and titles using variants on ‘human’. Some of these changes have undoubtedly reflected changes in the way in which we, and our employers, see ourselves. There was a time when our predecessors were industrial social workers bur predominantly we have moved on from there.

The latest title in vogue mystifies me – HR Business Partner. Sounds okay until you think why should HR be ‘partners’ when the same terminology isn’t applied to Finance or IT – the main other support functions? Why do we continually try to reinvent ourselves? Could it be a lack of self-confidence in what we do and our worth to an organisation?

A few years ago there was a wonderful letter in People Management (I think) decrying the use of the term ‘HR’, the writer explaining that in his business they employed people whose children were sick on occasions, their cars broke down, parents died etc – the main point being that these are things that happen to ordinary people in normal life and that his business employed people as opposed to Human Resources.

I wonder if our terminology using ‘resources’ and ‘capital’ (i.e. human capital) comes from an innate desire to imitate our finance colleagues and turn our profession into one where we measure most things. Of course HR should be accountable and make a definable contribution to an organisation – but do we have to mimic other functions?

I think we often forget that titles mean nothing if we don’t deliver. If we do deliver – who cares anyway? I would be interested to see some research on the perceptions of line managers’ views of HR teams across organisations. Would there be any correlation between title and performance? I doubt it.

I was interested recently to read an article by Jane Yarnall in which she referred to her new book HR – The Business Partner: shaping a new direction (jointly written with Barbara Kenton) in which she argues that there is a difference between a business partner role and a purely transactional HR role. I agree that there is a difference, but surely this is what good Personnel and HR Managers have been doing for years – this is nothing new.

The good HR Manager will understand what is going on in the business and will be looking for ways of improving business performance using a wide variety of skill from the toolbox – but mainly within the people arena. Of course HR people have other business skills and I think it’s great when people move into line roles – it demonstrates that HR people know what’s going on and have the skills to make a difference.

Looking back this debate reminds me of a time in a previous role as Regional Personnel Manager of a fairly well-known service organisation. Reporting to the Regional Director, not only did I manage HR activity but also within a few weeks of starting I found myself chairing a performance review of a group of area managers.

A few months after that it was the Chancellor’s budget, with the PR Manager answering one phone I was called upon to give the organisation’s views on the budget, hardly in my remit but did I care? Yet I was able to do these things, not because of my title (no HR Business Partners then!), but rather because I had gained the acceptance of my peers – and crucially my boss!

What’s the view from within your organisation? Do titles really matter? For a challenge, show me one organisation where using new terminology has had a significant impact on business performance!

Colborn’s Corner: series articles


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Annie Hayes

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