HR vs. People Ops, What's the Difference?

11 minutes • Apr 21, 2021Podcast

Are HR and People Ops the same thing? Not really!

Here is a useful image to help you see the breakdown of the two functions.

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Make me Smile

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Welcome back to flip-flops and people ops!. This is the show that teaches you how to build a  better culture by putting your people first. So today we're going to talk about the difference between HR and the title People Operations, or People Ops or POPS. If you want to use a fancy acronym. Maybe you know somebody with the term people ops in their title, or maybe your title has people ops people operations.

I thought it was pretty important in the beginning of this podcast to lay some foundation around what HR is and what people ops is and how your company could benefit from both. Because in my mind, they are different things.

Let's start with some definitions. So HR historically is focused on things like compliance. They do the things that you have to do to run a business. They make sure everybody gets paid. They make sure people have benefits available. They maintain everyone's information securely. They handle mediation. Sometimes they also are involved with recruiting, transferring, promoting, dealing with employee issues and handling mediation when that pops up, and sometimes termination of employees. People ops, on the other hand, this is an arm of HR umbrella. So people ops focuses more on implementing strategies that help the employees thrive. Things that help them be more productive at work. So daily activities or projects they work on could include reducing time to hire, improving employee engagement, establishing a strong company culture and increasing employee retention.

That's a lot, but all of that boils down to the employee experience. I don't know about you, but I love a good metaphor and the way that this all really makes sense to me is when I put it this way. Think of it like HR builds a house with walls and beams. There's no color on the walls, there's no furniture, but they fill that basic need of survival. You need shelter. People ops.. They fill up that house with the music and the arts and the furniture that makes the house feel like a home. They're like two halves of a whole. HR sets up a lot of structure and people ops makes the experience within that structure fun or good.

So HR obviously came first and it's been around for decades. So where did the term people ops come from? What I learned is that Google started this trend all the way back in 2006. They realized that they were starting to have a retention problem, they looked further into it and realized a lot of women were leaving the company.

They looked even further into it and they realized a lot of working moms were leaving the company. So they figured this out through lots of surveys and employee interviews and I think all of us know that Google monitors the happiness of its employees to a level that might seem absurd, but it was a good thing they did because they were able to, quickly in 2007 just one year later, change the benefits. New mothers could have up to five months off with full benefits and full pay, and then they also broke some barriers by offering seven weeks for any new parent. So for the dads, the husbands, the partners, it meant a healthy length of paternity leave. That was a big deal in 2007!

This example is a very major one, and I'm not saying every organization can afford this type of benefit to new parents, but you can see the people process at play here. They realized there was a retention issue. They looked into it, got to the bottom of it, and thought of a creative solution to fix it for the sake of employee happiness.

They measured over time if they improved it and they did that's people ops.

Our next segment is called, made me smile. So this is where I tell you a story about an employee or an entire company that made me smile. KGI wireless is a nationwide telecommunications management company based in Austin. So depending on where you're located, you may have heard from a friend or on the news that Texas experienced historical snowfall in February.

My own family is located in Texas and it was a gnarly little storm. We received enough snow to knock out our power and it left many without clean drinking water for days. When one of KGI's employees, Carrie Slota from Alabama, heard what was going on with the horrible weather, he loaded up a trailer full of bottled water and drove all the way from Alabama to the Austin office so anyone affected by the weather could try to access clean drinking water for themself and for their family. I'll post the picture in the show notes. He looks so proud next to his trailer full of water and what an amazing gesture to coworkers to make the drive like that to take care of them without even being asked.

So do you need an HR person, a people ops person, or both? Well, it depends! Like I said earlier, people ops is technically a function of the HR umbrella. So what I'm noticing is companies start with an HR manager first, and I think this makes sense.

You need someone to set up the structure and decide the code of conduct and determine and implement benefits. Again, think of it like someone building a functioning house, you don't bring all your furniture before the walls or the roof is built. You have to do that part a little bit later.

So, you need someone to come in as an HR manager and set up the black and white stuff of getting your business done. How are people going to get paid? What benefits will be available? How are we going to deploy them? That's what HR is fantastic for. Later, once that house is built, you can have a people ops person.

So how do you know when it's the right time to go find someone with that specialty? If your headcount is under 50 employees and relatively the same, or growing by one or two people a year, you still might not need a people ops person just yet. But if you are growing at a rate of five people a month, you should be looking into hiring someone into managing just the employee experience full-time.

So what does people ops work on? Sometimes this can be thought of as something really kitschy or cheesy. Like they're the people who remember taco day and margarita day and talk like a pirate day, and those things are fun and can be totally part of your culture, but the people ops job is a very tricky one.

They measure really important metrics like time to hire, which means the time it takes from identifying a candidate to all the way through the interviews. The hoops, they have to jump through to make sure that they're a qualified candidate all the way to hiring them. If it took them two months to get hired for your company, that's not getting started off on the right foot. You want that to be a decent turnaround time.

There are other metrics like cost per hire, employee turnover rates, diversity numbers.. I'll probably do a whole episode just on the people ops metrics that are the most important to pay attention to and what they mean. That'll come another day. But on top of the metrics, a people ops person would deploy all kinds of surveys. They're constantly looking for feedback. They survey new hires after onboarding is over asking how it went, and then again at 90 days asking things like hey, do you feel up to speed? And if someone says, no, I'm struggling. That's a good thing! Not that they're struggling, but that people ops person is finding a happiness issue if you will.

And they can say, okay, what do you feel like was missing from your onboarding that would have set you up for success better? And then, they tell you, and then the people ops person can go make adjustments to the onboarding experience. Then they're also serving all of the other employees very regularly asking things like, do you feel connected to our company's mission and vision? And do you feel like the values that our company has are lived every day by the leadership team? Do you feel like your work matters, and, you can notice pretty quickly if there's a trend. If a lot of people are saying, no, I don't feel like my work matters, maybe you have to implement a peer recognition program or maybe the leadership team needs to be more intentional in their one-on-ones on celebrating that employees wins, and it's something you can teach at a leadership level.

These surveys are super crucial to seeing if what is being implemented is making a difference. It's all stuff you can measure. Ask the same question again in a quarter. I made a couple of survey templates for you guys. I'm the template queen you'll come to learn.

I love a good example to follow. So as I do all this research for you guys for these episodes, I get to come up with really helpful tools for you to take after the show's over. So make sure you check out the show notes. I'll tell you at the end of the episode how to find the show notes and you can use all of our free templates for employee engagement surveys.

But really quick, other responsibilities of a people ops person include looking into new tools to modernize payroll benefits or recruiting. There are things called applicant tracking systems. There are lots of them, but it's basically how you find and recruit and keep track of people that you're hiring.

And if that process is being done in spreadsheets, a people ops person would come in and say their software for this and there's a way that we can do this a lot more efficiently. A people ops person also works on developing employee roadmaps for every role at the company. So that each person knows their path to grow.

It's human nature to feel a little uneasy if you've been in your role for two years and you think you've been doing a great job, but you haven't been promoted, and maybe your manager doesn't know that you wanted to be promoted, and you don't know what's expected of you to get to the next level. And this all festers and can create a happiness problem, because that employee is giving a big chunk of their time and their energy to your company. They're like, I'm spinning my wheels, I don't know how to get to the next level, and this is really annoying! When they have a roadmap built by a people ops person, then they know what to do! They know what's expected, and they can go crush it in their own way, and then everybody's standing on even ground.

You can get pretty far without a dedicated people ops person, but, you should be really careful if you go that route. Your founder or your CEO or someone at the company needs to be paying attention to and thinking about the employee experience. You might get lucky and find an HR unicorn who can do all of this foundational stuff, black and white stuff, but also working to do the initial early-stage employee happiness exercises, but that's a very heavy workload for one person and it's really not sustainable if you're trying to really create an amazing employee experience. Also, I don't know if I even mentioned this part. The reason you want a fun, engaging, good employee experience is because engaged employees who are happy, they stay! Your people are your biggest asset.

It's very expensive to lose people on a regular basis. That's your turnover rate. If your turnover rate is really high, it's a waste of money because you spend time and resources to find good people. They get interviewed, they get hired, they take time away from other people at the company from doing their work to attend the interview. Are they a good culture fit? Great! Awesome! Join the team! Then that employee works for you for a couple of months, or maybe a year, and just isn't having a great experience. Doesn't really know what their path is at the company, there's not great communication.. There's other happiness issues that go unresolved and that employee leaves.

Now you have to start over and go spend more time and resources to find good people. Interview them, hire them, train them, get them up to speed.. You know it takes months for an employee to really feel and understand the jargon, how to make an impact in their role. It's not an overnight thing.

So, then again when that next employee leaves, it's like, what are we doing? It's the definition of insanity to not work on your employee experience or wonder why your turnover rates so high and not have someone looking at, okay, do we have a happiness issue? Where can I dig in to see what's going on? And why are people leaving? A people ops person is just in charge of employee happiness. That's a great way to summarize it. It sounds fluffy, but if you don't have someone looking into this your culture will suffer, the quality of work will be mediocre, and people will go to more exciting and employee driven environments where they feel more included or connected to another company's mission. You want to keep the great people that you already have and get new hire started off on the best foot possible and a people ops person make sure that's happening.

So, that's the difference between HR and people ops. HR focuses on enforcing compliance and reducing liability, while people ops is usually busy with employee development, engagement, and retention.

You need both skillsets to design an awesome employee experience. People ops is technically an arm under the HR umbrella, but in many companies, these two roles can blur together and that can be done by one person. But either way, if you put your employees first and make sure they're having a good experience, you'll retain your top talent and save the company money.

Our last segment is my 2 cents where I share a quick tip to make you a better leader. This week I'm suggesting something a little silly, but it works. Start your meetings off with a quick ice breaker. Sound cheesy? It's not! My own boss and I have put this into practice and we have learned so much about each other. By doing this, we don't spend more than five minutes or so on it, and you really can't do it if there's more than four or five people on the meeting, but it's great for one-on-ones especially if someone has more authority than the other person. We have shared things like our hobbies, our interests, how big or small our families are, what our childhood was like, who we were when we were younger, what kind of life experiences we've had.. It fosters the kind of conversation that helps build trust, especially with an employee and their manager.

I will also link out in the show notes to a list of really easy and fun icebreakers that you can use to form stronger connections with the people that you work with, and I guess the people that you're meeting with.

So now remember those templates I mentioned? Yes. I want you to go use them. So visit people. Oops.nope (that's not it) Visit... /peopleops P I N G B O A R E O P L E ops. All of the templates in the show notes will be there for you.  Hey everybody. It's Christie. Make sure you go review the show on Apple podcasts. More reviews means I get to spend more time making the show. Also I'd love to hear from you. So send me your tips, your questions, or anything else you can connect with me on LinkedIn at See you next time!

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