Does HR need to rebrand?

Many consider that HR offers a lot more value than it once did with discussions following if the function’s name is now redundant...

Words by Daniel Cave | Design by Lucy Bick

Words by Daniel Cave

Design by Lucy Bick

Do ‘jazzy’ titles work?

Most people in HR will be aware of the insignificant tendency towards novel titles over the last few years. There’s Heads of Keeping People Happy, Chief Vibe Officers, Chief Storytellers, Happiness Officers and Calendar Ninjas. The list goes on. Whilst some might think these are too esoteric and detract from HR’s important work – Matt Weston, Managing Director of Robert Half UK, told myGrapevine magazine last year that “vague titles often using the words ‘guru’ may pique interest, but they provide little insight into the responsibilities involved or the skillset required” – there is an argument that certain ‘jazzy’ titles, think of those happiness officers, better reflect the people or wellbeing-centric agenda that HR is spending more time working off.

Often, these titles also work to position the firm as having a certain culture or ethos. As Robert Half’s Weston explained: “Companies are becoming more creative with their job titles. It is becoming increasingly common for companies to advertise traditional roles for analysts and accountants with unconventional or creative job titles to distinguish themselves from their competition.” If one agrees with this theory, that creative and rebranded job titles can work to give a better sense of the tasks a company or person is involved in, what if that thinking was applied to a whole function, say, the HR function? Would it mean that HR was due a rebrand if it was found to be doing something very different from where the function began?

We shouldn’t ask about how HR ‘needs to rebrand’ but look at the company as a whole…

HR has changed over the years

Firstly, there aren’t many HR practitioners who disagree that the function is much changed from how it began. Anne Kiely, HRD EMEA at Twitter, previously told myGrapevine magazine that HR has come a far way from the days when it merely oversaw personnel administration, evolving to become a place that drives development and people skills. “One of the things in my role [now], and in all of HR’s role, is to support the creation and development of the people manager cohort,” she explained. HR has also, according to Brian Kropp, Chief of HR Research at Gartner, become a function that is increasingly data literate. “HR used to be a function that was run by feel [and intuition and] doing process sort of stuff. It has shifted to become a function that is run by data and analytics rather than a function that is run by feel and intuition,” he says. Something crucial for any high functioning business.

There are those who see further evolution for the people function still. Abbe Luersman, CHRO at Ahold Delhaize, told myGrapevine magazine in 2019 that HR increasingly sits with the Board to drive aligned business and people strategies. “[They’re] driving culture and purpose within the organisation…not just for the employee but for the broader business too.” And, reflecting on disruption the pandemic year created, Jason Fowler, VP of HR Northern and Western Europe at Fujitsu, believes that coronavirus has been “a catalyst for a long awaited change in HR” citing the need for the function to step away from tradition, get more involved in active organisational design and focus more on wellbeing. The latter being a task that many HR leaders will cite as being a core focus over the last 12 months.

It really is an unprecedented time for HR...

Rebrand or add value?

Kevin Green, author, consultant and ex-CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), believes that the debate around HR rebranding is actually a synecdoche of a deeper question: is HR evolving, at least in part, to become a function that adds real value to the business. “The debate should really not be about should we rebrand, but are we adding value, because if you're finding value, regardless of what you're called, you're going to be critical to organizational success,” he says.

HR has changed – should the name?

Yet just because the tasks have changed, and looking likely to evolve further still, should the function rebrand? Nick Matthews, General Manager and Vice President EMEA at Culture Amp believes that, if it did, it might send a signal about how the function views both employees, it’s increasing remit (now including wellbeing and individuated support) and the tasks it undertakes. “What we call something sends a signal about what it is, how we should treat it, and more,” Matthews adds.  “With organisations looking to maintain staff motivation and wellbeing as the pandemic continues, instead of associating employees as being dispensable ‘resources’, the HR function should reflect a determination to reach out to and support their employees, corporate wellbeing and resilience.”

Matthews' thinking sounds right. Whilst HR might still look after all the traditional elements it once did – “HR hasn’t outgrown what it was traditionally known for,” Matthews adds – it certainly has a lot more on its plate. In fact, as Matthews continues: “The current transformation in society and the world of work, post-pandemic, will be a task that has outgrown what HR has been built for….it now has to cope with the biggest shift in working conditions since WW2, equality, diversity and inclusion… it really is an unprecedented time for HR.” In fact, due to a high number of evolutionary channels coming to a head over the last year, HR now likely has to have a better understanding of both employees and the business than it did previously, with greater insight into how the personal, professional and organisational interact. It’s certainly a lot more work than headcounts, paychecks and administration.

It’s all change

It is this evolution that Matthews cites – sped up dramatically by events over the last year – that lead Aggy Russell, Head of People Transformation at Virgin Media, to believe that HR “in a way has already rebranded itself”. He cites that at Virgin Media the HR department is no longer just a recruitment and employee management function but one that leads cultural transformation and business transformation. “We call ourselves the People, Strategy and Transformation team and [tasks include] driving change through ways of working, implementing new people policies, learning and development opportunities for our people to upskill, as well as leadership programmes.”

Yet the change in functional remit that Russell sees isn’t specific to HR, at least according to David Henderson, Group Chief HR Officer at Zurich. He believes that, from his own experience at the Swiss insurer, that business, as a whole, is rebranding and changing. Whilst HR was an important managing factor in this: “We introduced a new operating model, set the strategic agenda for our employee value proposition and positioned ourselves as an attractive employer for next gen talent…we have also committed ourselves to a set of principles for our own workforce which includes prioritising reskilling over hiring externally and in-sourcing where possible to support our employees in times of change,” he explains – this was part of wider changes. It lead him to conclude: “In that sense, we shouldn’t ask about how HR ‘needs to rebrand’ but look at the company as a whole.”