People & Culture
5 minute read

What's in a name: HR Director or Head of People?

HR has had a makeover recently. The field now abounds with trendy job titles, from Chief Happiness Officer to Head of Talent. But do these new names actually mean anything? And what does it say about your business if you have a Head of People, a HR Director, or no HR department at all?


Do you still need an HR Director?

For some businesses, the whole concept of “Human Resources” is ready for the scrap heap.

Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, says that HR departments “drown creative people in process and bureaucracy.[1]" His argument is that issues like employee disputes can be handled by line managers, allowing businesses to scale faster and promoting a culture of self-reliance.

Jackson is not the first to point out that HR can smack of “command and control” top-down management. Small wonder - the term “human resources” was coined by Peter Drucker in the 1950s, an era notorious for top-down management and the drive for operational efficiency as a competitive advantage[2]. Some see today’s HR departments as a hangover from the 50s, acting as the office police, enforcing control, hierarchy and compliance.


The case for switching from HR Director to Head of People

While we agree with Jackson that many HR tasks could be better handled by line managers, we certainly don’t share his view that it’s time to scrap the whole concept altogether!

After all, HR teams oversee many critical functions that businesses would find hard to manage without, including employment law, regulatory compliance, employee relations, talent management, and much more.

Instead of firing the HR Director, maybe it’s time to turn your HR department into a People team.

The term “People Operations” was first coined by Lazlo Bock, Google’s former Head of People. In his book Work Rules, Bock explains:


At Google, conventional business language wasn’t well-regarded. ‘HR’ would be viewed as administrative and bureaucratic. In contrast, ‘operations’ was viewed by engineers as a credible title, connoting some actual ability to get things done[3].”


In other words, while it has many overlaps with HR, the goal of a People team is to be proactive, rather than reactive. For instance, where HR would hire a replacement when an employee left, the People team might aim to reduce overall turnover by creating a great place to work.

This isn’t just a quick rebranding exercise for an unpopular department. Rather, it represents a significant shift in business priorities and values. Companies with a Head of People are signalling to current and future employees that they see their people as their principle competitive advantage and are focused on creating an outstanding employee experience.

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If an HR department suggests top-down control and soulless, standardised policies, a People team is there to support employee development, engagement and motivation.

To allow the Head of People to take on this more forward-thinking approach to the People strategy, companies should aim to reduce the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of the HR function. After all, tech expert Bernard Marr points out that many of HR’s current tasks can be better handled digitally, and often automatically[4]. For instance:

  • Use a digital learning platform to assign mandatory learning content, send reminders to employees and track completion automatically.
  • Empower your new hires by allowing them to self-serve their own onboarding content.
  • Use pulse polls to survey employee engagement levels, collect data and produce automatic reports.

 Additionally, instead of positioning the HR Director as the company’s police officer, rethinking your employee handbook can create a more collaborative working environment and reduce the burden placed on HR to enforce endless policies. Retail giant Nordstrom can fit their entire Employee Handbook onto an index card: “Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.[5]

 If you develop and effectively communicate your company’s values and the behaviours that support those values, you won’t need an HR department to act as the “arm of the law.” In a similar vein, screening for values fit  and evaluating your candidates thoroughly before hiring them should reduce the number of employee relations issues that call for HR intervention.

 Instead of thinking of your company culture as something managed and imposed by HR, involve your employees in the process of co-creating and maintaining a shared employee experience. At Learn Amp, for example, we hire people who will contribute to our culture, not just be a part of it.

Finally, we do agree with Jackson that the Head of People shouldn’t be expected to paper over the gaps left by bad managers. Managers should be the ones having many of those tough conversations with employees, encouraging learning and development, identifying and addressing issues, and not relying on HR to pick up the slack.


In short, the role of a Head of People is very different from that of an HR Director. Instead of the more top-down role played by traditional HR leadership, the Head of your People team should create and own the strategy, analysis, processes and implementation to ensure that your company offers an exceptional employee experience.

 While they may still hold responsibility for issues like legal compliance, employee relations and other regulatory requirements, the administrative burden associated with these tasks should be reduced to ensure a stronger focus on proactive People strategies. These, and many other tasks traditionally handled by HR may be better assigned to line managers, handed over to the employees themselves, automated, or simply eliminated.


Find out how Learn Amp can help you reduce the work load of your People team, allow your employees to self-serve their own online education, and collaborate more effectively even when working remotely.

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