What's in a Name? New HR Titles Reflect These Professionals' Strategic Importance.

How does 'people operations' strike you? 'Chief people officer'? 'Chief happiness officer'?

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By Matt Straz • Aug 8, 2016


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HR professionals are the glue that holds a company together, but the term "human resources" doesn't necessarily scream excitement to the everyday person. In fact, to some it feels outdated.

Related: 8 Business Name Mistakes That Investors Hate to See

A lot of times, employees aren't even exactly sure what the "HR department" even does, outside of basic paperwork or answers to questions about benefits.

But, the thing is, HR has never been more strategic, and that's why more and more employers lately have been shifting away from the traditional "HR" label and to the more exciting one of . . . "people operations."

This is not just a rebranding effort -- it's about reinvigorating traditional HR with a new mindset. While the traditional HR department is focused primarily on compliance and hiring, "people operations" takes this skill set a step further by looking at the best ways to empower employees to meet goals and drive results.

"People operations" isn't the only new label you'll see out there. With more strategy comes even more responsibilities, which in turn calls for snazzier new role names that get at HR's new set of priorities. What other new HR titles are out there, and what do they mean? Here's a look:

'Chief people officer'

More and more employers are realizing just how important their people are -- and just how invaluable their HR department is. In fact, a July 2015 CareerBuilder survey found that 57 percent of CEOs surveyed said that HR executives provide actionable talent data and other research that helps companies devise strategies to meet larger business goals. What's more, 73 percent said that their own HR leader had provided data they had incorporated into their overall business strategy.

To give these professionals a greater voice and role in the company as whole, many organizations -- including my company, Namely -- are adding a "chief people officer" to their HR teams. When the HR department is structured to include this position, it not only has a greater role within the company, but employees feel more valued. They feel just as important as Finance, Operations and other business functions that have a presiding VP.

Related: What's in a Name? In Branding, Pretty Much Everything.

While the chief people officer title has more influence, its priorities are similar to those of a traditional head of HR. Strengthening HR operations comes first before its team members can turn their attention to forward-thinking strategies.

'Chief happiness officer'

Just like a "vice president of people," a "chief happiness officer" position puts the HR department in the C-suite -- at least figuratively. While a VP of people oversees everything from recruitment to onboarding to talent development and mobility, the chief happiness officer has a more singular focus: employee contentment.

It might sound silly, but happiness can have a huge impact on employee performance. After all, a February 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of Warwick and the Institute for the Study of Labor found that happier employees are 12 percent more productive and are more passionate about work. With that kind of impact, it's no wonder employers are putting professionals on a mission to make their people happier.

Heroku takes a unique approach to the challenge with what it calls "vibe managers." These new office managers focus on the little things, to keep employees happy and engaged. For example, vibe managers have done everything from organizing team bar outings, to finding an old TV compatible with an old-school Nintendo. But vibe managers do more than cater to the wants of employees. More importantly, they listen to what teams are saying, anticipate their needs and meet them before employees need to ask.

Whether they're called a vibe manager or chief happiness officer, these professionals look at all the different aspects that make up traditional HR, only through the lens of the employee experience.

'Chief of culture'

HR has known the importance of company culture for some time, but executives are now starting to see its value, too. According to a 2014 global survey of nearly 1,200 C-suite executives by McKinsey & Co., spending time on culture was a key priority for respondents who had successfully transitioned to the C-suite.

That's why more companies are adding chiefs of culture and chief happiness officers. While many employers add these positions as a way to maintain company culture during periods of rapid growth and major changes, Stericycle did so to shift its company's focus from operations to its employees. Although the company was already financially successful, the CEO felt it could do more for its people.

Related: The 8 Must-Follow Rules for Rebranding Your Company (Infographic)

No matter what the reason, culture officers work with HR and executives to make sure programs, initiatives and processes reinforce and reflect the company culture and values.

Matt Straz

Founder and CEO of Namely

Matt Straz is the founder and CEO of Namely, the HR and payroll platform for the world's most exciting companies.

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