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What’s in a name?

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The HR name debate: Any bright ideas?

The HR name debate has been a hot topic of late. Jan Hills, from HR with Guts, discusses the impact of this identity crisis and asks if a name really matters.


The HR profession seems to be going through a personality crisis. It can’t seem to settle on a name, leaping through HR to personnel to the very limiting ‘payroll’, with its employees ranging from plain old HR workers, to business partners to strategic developers.

This identity crisis began in the 70s when the name changed from personnel to HR and has continued ever since. This original change heralded a new era for HR, marking the decision to provide more strategic advice and make a greater contribution to the business. As we draw near to 2008, the preferred names of the moment range from human capital management to the rather obscure talentship to chief people officer.

There is nothing wrong with the HR profession adopting a new name to represent the changing role and contribution it makes to the business. The problem occurs when only the name changes. This is happening at an individual level and we are increasingly finding that people are being given the title of strategic business partner or strategic developer without them having a clear understanding how this will affect their role.

“Without the necessary training and support, and a clear understanding of their new function and goals, although the name will have changed, the role will stay the same.”

Without the necessary training and support, and a clear understanding of their new function and goals, although the name will have changed, the role will stay the same.

Name change, both for the profession and the individual role, without functional change has led to cynicism within HR and has created further problems for the profession that, if left unchecked, can only get worse.

A reduction of credibility

If the HR function is continually concerned about its own name, it is looking inward rather than focussing on how to help the business it works within. If HR people are spending their time constantly trying to redefine themselves by thinking up new names, then it is clear that while they are spending time doing that, they are not thinking about ideas and processes that will help the business or client.

If HR cannot settle on a name that represents its role within the business, it sends the message that it doesn’t know what its doing or how it should be doing it. This, over time, runs the risk of a loss of credibility as HR fails to live up to its new name.

In short, this identity crisis will continue creating a problem while HR people still see it as such an issue. Until the function changes and HR stops thinking about itself but rather how it should be helping the business, then the naming debate will cause more harm than good.

In a recent survey conducted by HR with Guts, we found that many people in HR feel that the name changes within the industry are not representative of changes to their role and 77 per cent of respondents felt that name changes were just a distraction.

The solution

If HR can maintain its focus then the name, while still potentially less relevant, will at least be less of a hindrance to the profession.

The name should not be used to signify the start of the change process.

It is vital that from here on in, HR as an industry makes a commitment to only change its name if it has already demonstrated that it is doing something different. Name change can be beneficial if the function has already changed, but only after the change has taken place. In fact, an ideal position would be that the demand came from other people outside of HR.

Before you even consider a name change, make sure that you have a clear purpose and a clear understanding of the business goals and that HR is executing on this.

No change within the department can be successful unless the individual and the team as a whole has a clear understanding of the changes that need to be made, a strategy for implementing those changes, and a strong belief that these changes to the HR function will benefit the business.

Get training to make sure you and your team know what you should be doing and how you should be doing it.

Changes to the HR function will often mean that the individual’s roles will change. For the changes to be effective, and for the team to have the confidence to implement them, they need to feel they have the right tools and guidance. For example, it is not enough to give somebody the title of strategic business partner if they do not understand the new goals and targets this implies, and how to reach them.

When you do decide to make the name change, make sure that the name (and the focus of the HR function) reflects the requirements of the business.

Have you made sure your client is aware of the changes that are planned for the HR function and sees their relevance to the business? There is little point in redefining the role of the department if it does not reflect the needs of your client or if your client is unlikely to understand or respond to those changes. It is therefore vital to discuss the changes with the business and to educate your clients about what these changes will be, why they are important and the contribution this will provide to the business.

“No change within the department can be successful unless the individual and the team has a clear understanding of the changes that need to be made.”

Clear explanation

If the business doesn’t understand the reason behind the name change, they will not see its value. If HR does not clearly explain that the name reflects the changes to the function, and how this will impact on the business, then the name change will have no value to the client and it will again give the impression that the department is too inwardly focused.

If you feel that within your department, you are already in a position where your name has changed and this has not been reflected in your function or been appreciated by your clients, you need to look at the chosen term and find out what the new name implies the HR focus should be. Conduct an audit to find out if this is actually representative of the desired HR focus and if so, if the team is executing on this.

If the department has also bestowed new job titles, such as strategic business partner, you need to make sure that each person is confident that they understand what this change means. No change can be successful without the buy-in of the individual and to facilitate that, they need to feel they are capable of fulfilling their new role and understanding the value of the change.

Ultimately, the new names do not reflect changes to the function, and the profession is far too concerned with what it should be called. If the profession cannot decide on a name and HR continues to be so inwardly focussed, the client will find alternatives, either by giving a particular function to a different department within the company or to outsource altogether. The time has come for HR to stop navel gazing and to concentrate on working more closely with the businesses we support.


Jan Hills established HR with Guts in 1999 to help HR teams add value to their businesses. Jan was previously global head of HR for several financial organisations and was COO for an investment bank. She is a fellow of the CIPD and a NLP master practitioner and coach.

One Response

  1. It’s about brand
    And brand isn’t created by the name, but by the experience of the brand. Call yourself “Strategic HR”, but if you don’t add strategic value what’s the point?

    HR should focus on doing what they can to add real value to business performance if they want to be seen in a more positive light. Either that, or accept what comes with being an operational department.

    Rob Robson, Business Psychologist, Warwickshire

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