Busting myths about the role of an HR manager

Business woman reviewing an employee complaint at her desk

The role of human resources (HR) manager has not been shown in a positive light in popular culture. For many, the HR department is a place of distrust - but is this justified?

Let’s bust some myths about the role of HR manager and take a closer look at the HR activities that improve organisations.

The role of the HR manager

Human resource management is a business function that leverages the capabilities and commitment of employees to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. Now, the problem with this definition is that it takes all of the humanity out of a business function that is primarily concerned with human beings.

One half of the role of HR manager is to advocate on behalf of the company to influence and motivate employees. The other half of the role is to advocate on behalf of those employees to ensure their working conditions are safe, they have access to training and that their work is rewarding. It’s a role with great potential that requires a delicate balancing act for success.

The importance of a strong HR department

To understand the importance of a strong HR department, consider an organisation that has no HR department (like advertising agency Stirling Cooper in Mad Men). The role of HR manager falls on the shoulders of line managers who are not only untrained in HR but also have daily responsibilities in managing staff and workflows. Those staff are unlikely to receive training, opportunities or guidance and may feel unrewarded in their work, leading to high staff turnover.

In addition to relieving line managers of extra responsibility, a strong HR department can provide vital support and guidance to senior management. A logistics manager from the American department store Target attributes their success to the strong HR department’s focus on “right people, right place, right time.” They describe the HR department as being meticulous in hiring the right people, strategic in putting them in the right place and musical in their approach to training and promoting at the right time.

Let’s look at the key aspects in the role of HR manager in more detail…


Hiring the right people is a process that begins long before a vacancy appears. Recruitment is underpinned by workforce planning – a strategic activity that works toward corporate goals by retaining and developing key employees while attracting high-quality new employees. This involves a particular type of marketing and corporate branding that transforms a business into a desirable destination for superior job applicants.

However, an effective HR manager understands that the right person isn’t necessarily the applicant with the most experience, the highest qualifications or the nicest personality. Recruitment is about finding the right fit between the person and the environment. This presents challenges when senior management believe that the organisational needs to take precedence – while the HR manager may have a good reason for focussing on the needs of the job applicant. Getting the balance right will help to influence work culture.

Work culture

Whether it’s good or bad, every workplace has a culture. It’s the social glue that holds the organisation together – the way things are done around the office. Work culture is not set in stone, but changing a culture is a bit like turning a container ship. That’s because most of the factors that influence work culture are invisible, including values and basic assumptions.

The role of HR manager is in many ways the gate-keeper of the corporate culture but in no way the controller. Effective HR managers have the skills to influence desirable behaviours in existing employees while guiding the evaluation and selection of new employees.

Employee retention

This is another one of those delicate balances for the HR manager. Many employers would prefer employees to continue doing their job effectively and eternally, while most employees would like a promotion, a pay rise and some new challenges. The employer puts money and training into achieving organisational goals, but when the employee doesn’t fulfil their career-goals, they look for a new job.

Walmart is a department store in the United States, where the HR managers have initiated a plan to improve employee retention. They give employees non-financial recognition for excellent performance, bonuses for business performance and training that supports business needs and staff morale. As further incentives, they actively promote staff internally and have a relationship with a university that gives academic credit for work experience. Not every employer can support an employee retention plan like this, but effective HR managers apply similar principles to improve employee retention.

Employee relations

Whether it’s called employee relations, labour relations or industrial relations, this aspect of the role of HR manager is generally about relationships with unions. It may involve working with individual employees or working with unions on behalf of all employees.

However, employee relations may simply involve HR practices that shape organisational citizenship. This is where the HR manager can use their skills to influence the fair treatment of all employees – along with pay equity, mutual respect and diversity. Another important skill is to be able to communicate with employees in a way that is transparent and invites a two-way dialogue.

HR in the age of big data

In addition to these traditional activities in the role of HR manager, technology is providing a deeper understanding of employees. Computer records of employees have evolved from holding basic data like work experience and training to become talent management systems. Harnessing the power of data analytics, HR managers can gain various insights, from job location and role to information on a variety of relationships.

Big data is enabling HR managers to develop more precise forecasts, assess more accurately what is working and what isn’t, and thus make more effective decisions. These developments make it an excellent time to undertake a Master of Human Resources Management to update your HR skills and capitalise on the possibilities created by technology. Businesses are increasingly turning to culture, and people who can shape culture, for a competitive edge in a rapidly changing world. 

Learn more about our online Master of Human Management program. Get in touch with our Enrolment team on 1300 701 171.