What I tell people when they ask me what I do in HR

I watched a TED talk a while back by language historian Anne Curzon where she tells an amusing story in the beginning. She says that when she is at a dinner party and people find out her profession, they usually have one of two reactions; they either (a) get really frightened because they think she will spot every mistake they might make or (b) their eyes light up because they want to tell her about everything they think is wrong with the English language. It is a hilarious and interesting talk and I would highly recommend watching it here. But there is something about this anecdote that resonated with me. Whenever I introduce myself, outside of my workplace, as a Human Resources Professional, I usually get asked one of two questions. It is either, “So that means you are a recruiter?” or “So that means you don’t have much work, do you?”. Now the first question makes me sigh in tiredness but the second one just pisses me off but we’ll get to that later. Let’s focus on the first question for a minute.

There was a time when the human resources department did little more than process payroll and shuffle paperwork and we have come such a long way since then but it still irks me the everyone still thinks its only about the most visible aspect of the function. At this point I must note that recruitment is an extremely crucial step in the entire employee life cycle and I have a tremendous amount of respect for recruiters. In fact, sometimes I wish I was a recruiter so that I could just answer the first question with a resounding yes and then we would move on to more interesting topics not involving work. But I’m not so I usually have to come up with some sort of explanation of the work that I do which more often than not leaves the person mildly baffled and they drop the subject (hurrah!). In recent months, I have amused myself by coming up with some unconventional answers, let’s say. If you plan to read on, please keep an open mind :). So here are some of my explanations:

  • I’m like a janitor, I clean up messes when they need cleaning up. I can’t take complete credit for this one as it was inspired by the movie, Michael Clayton but I love this the most as it is guaranteed to leave someone completely baffled if I do not expound further.
  • I talk to people all day long. Another head scratcher, this either invites more questions or leads to aforementioned baffled silence
  • I’m happy to spend the next two hours telling you about my work. Would you like that? This elicits a nervous laugh and then an immediate change of topic.
  • I’m an HR Evangelist. There is such a thing although I’m not one but I just get a kick seeing the stunned expression and the internal battle waging in someone’s head to decide whether to ask or not.
  • I issue a lot of letters. This one isn’t too creative and usually gets a knowing nod as it is very much in keeping with people’s expectations from the HR department. Disappointing.
  • I’m an HR Generalist. This is the truth and if I choose to use this one, I usually have a lot of follow up questions to answer about what it means.

However amusing this may be, it got me thinking. Why is it so hard to communicate about the work that we do? It should be possible to explain every aspect of HR in it’s simplest form so as not to frighten or baffle anyone but just make them ‘get it’. We really need more people to better understand what goes on and in that way we can get their genuine opinions and perspectives on the subject which will vastly improve matters for everyone. I’m going to ponder on that for a while and see what I can come up with.

Until then,


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