In today’s post, we’ll be exploring the supreme importance of people operations–what it is, why you should care, and how it’s different from “HR.” Let’s dive in.

Last month I was on the phone with a leader in the Human Resources field.

She is smart, knew her business extremely well, and spoke very clearly about company goals and mission. I left the conversation impressed.

Her title: “Direct of People Ops:” in the middle of our conversation, I asked her, “What’s the difference between Director of People Ops and Director of HR?”

Her response: “Brand. No one has ever had a ‘People Ops Problem.’ Thousand of people across the world have an ‘HR Problem.’”

She continued on around regarding her company’s plans to implement simple, performance reviews outside of the traditional, unscalable Google Docs / spreadsheets. Yet, I was still reveling in her profundity.

“Hold on one sec, if you wouldn’t mind, can you tell me what is the actual difference in job function between Director of HR and Director of People Ops with you role?” I asked.  

She replied: “Very little. We may emphasize the People part more, but from a day to day, the roles job description is very similar.”

These semantics fascinated me.

It’s driving the perception, prioritization, and brand of an entire industry.

I’ve asked many leaders in the Human Resources space what’s the difference between People Ops vs. HR and the only clear answer is there isn’t one.

The role and meaning of each title vary by company, stage of the business, years of experience, priorities, and interpretation.

After getting a decent sample size (50 ish) here are the conclusions drawn:

people operations vs human resources

What Are People Ops’ Main Priorities and Job Function?

Let’s break their roles out and then contrast with those of a typical HR department.

  • Empower managers and their teams.
  • Monitor team and individual development.
  • Facilitate management training and development. 
  • Strategic, data-backed reporting to the CEO.

Related: people ops need to know these 5 questions designed to gain respect from employees.

Here are a few more roles for people operations:

  • Offer ideas, test software, and improve processes.
  • Propose creative incentive structure.
  • Focus on results and retention.

Let’s Contrast That With HR’s Main Priorities and Job Functions:

The HR Department is designed to:

  • Ensure benefits are superior.
  • Maintain the formalized structure of the organization.
  • Enforce the current rules.
  • Provide exceptional onboarding and offboarding.
  • Recruit like a champion.
  • Mandate compliance and proper protocol.
  • Focus on making sure everyone is paid and covered.

Ok. Enough bullet points.

HR departments exist to make their company’s infrastructure run smoothly–People Ops’ departments exist to make their company’s infrastructure run effectively.

Human Resources = the legal, ethical, and structural organization of employees and teams.

People Operations = the results-oriented, strategy focused leadership and management of people.

Why does this matter?

Leaders in the organization must decide when to bring on an HR leader or a People Ops expert in the company.

Understanding the scope of each role provides a clear standard of what to expect when hired. There is no right role to hire first or last, it depends on the need and stage of every business.

The roles of People Ops vs. Human Resources is a fascinating discussion.

The semantics and job title may seem small but affects the expectations, perception, and demands of the role. As time goes on, observe the nature of role names and let us know your thoughts.

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