How to Write an HR Mission Statement
*This blog is adapted from the first episode of HR Party of One, How to Write a Mission Statement, which you can view below.
Today, we’re talking HR mission statements - what they are, why they’re important, and how to build one. This is a good time of year to think about this stuff - the beginning of the year is usually busy for HR, but if you don’t already have a proper mission statement, taking a little time in January to think broadly about your mission can help you see those daily tasks as helping you get there. Steven Covey, one of the greatest business minds of the last century, would describe this kind of thing as "beginning with the end in mind". It’s not a stretch to say a mission statement can set you up for a more productive 2020. Maybe even a more productive decade.
We’ll get into all the details on this shortly, but to set the foundation, I wanted to ask - how did a group of people like ourselves wind up responsible for what we now call human resources? How did we collectively get here? Why is HR even a thing?
The History of Human Resources
Human resources are the people who make up the workforce of an organization, business sector, or economy. "Human capital" is sometimes used synonymously with "human resources", although human capital typically refers to a narrower effect (for example, the knowledge the individuals embody and economic growth). Likewise, other terms sometimes used include manpower, talent, labor, personnel, or simply people. Google calls their HR team People Operations.
The economist John R. Commons is credited with coining the term “human resource” in his book “The Distribution of Wealth” in 1893. This guy was an institutional economist and a labor historian who completed two major studies of labor unions in the U.S., and he even basically invented workplace safety regulations and workers comp.
John Commons’ theory of labor really shaped the work you and I do today. Commons thought economics alone didn’t explain working behavior. He looked toward psychology, history and sociology to understand why workers behave the way they do, and built reform proposals around the following concepts:
- Equity, or fairness for workers
- Bargaining to resolve conflict
- Reasonableness, or basing bargaining on social intelligence
The other “founding father” of HR, you might say, is Frederick Taylor, actually known as the father of Scientific Management, or managing a business or industry according to efficiency-based principles.
Taylor’s book "Shop Management", published in 1900, made a case for better management of employees by using the scientific method to improve efficiency, matching workers to tasks they are best suited for, monitoring performance and feedback, and delegating planning to managers to encourage worker focus.
The Foundation of HR
So these guys really laid the foundation for HR - but they didn’t exactly invent it. It’s believed that the first HR department was established by the National Cash Register Company in 1901 after a period of strikes and grievances. John Patterson, the boss, dedicated resources toward employee management, compliance, and safety.
From here, HR emerged as a clearly defined field in the 1920s, and through the following decades grew to be a core component of American business.
HR saw renewed focus in the 1970s, when business shifts more broadly, including globalization and technology growth, created a need for more strategic “HR.”
Manufacturing roles were giving way to automation, workforce needs were changing, and turnover was high. During this time of mid-century transition in the US, we also saw Equal Opportunity Regulations implemented – including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. New laws meant employers needed more focus on the management and protections of workers.
By the 90s, there were new fundamental organizational changes in American businesses than affected HR.
The 90s were marked by mass downsizing, and what some saw as the death of lifelong employment. A March 1996 series of articles in the NYT called “The Downsizing of America” said 43 million jobs were lost since 1979.
Companies were focused on repositioning, streamlining and cost-efficiency, and the knowledge sector grew while manufacturing dwindled. Interestingly, some say that the best parallel for the the big changes we saw in the 1990s is the 1890s, when Frederick Taylor introduced the scientific methods for managing a business.
In the 90s, HR became responsible for “doing more with less” and getting the right workers trained for the right job. Workforce reduction aka layoffs were a dominant feature of this era, but there were also substantial demographic changes as more and more women and minorities entered the workforce. Some workforce discrimination and harassment issues took center stage. Remember Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the Anita Hill hearings in Congress? Cases like that got more attention, shining a light on work cultures across the country.
As we entered a new millennium, the nature of work and the nature of HR continued to evolve. Work in the U.S. has become more relaxed as tech companies changed the face of corporate life, probably forever. Feedback has become more fluid, and the annual review has gone the way of the fax machine.
If I asked you in 1910, what’s the mission of HR, you’d have given me a much different answer then than you would have in 2010. As business needs have changed, so too has the nature of our work.
Today, work/life balance and flexibility are a much bigger focus…in part because the lines of work and home life have blurred, for better or for worse. The office is always available through email and smartphones. Career development is agile, and the recruitment market is competitive. The future holds the promise of AI, automation, more and better data, and the entrance of Gen Z into the workforce.
So with so many decades of change – what is today’s HR professional focused on? What unique value do HR pros bring to today’s organizations? This is something we dove into through a recently published survey report called “HR 2020 Issues and Trends”.
What do mission statements have to do with achieving these goals?
Mission statements are really valuable clarifying tools - creating a framework for your goals and outcomes, and how day-to-day work contributes toward achieving them, is useful for individuals, organizations, and teams. It gives you the opportunity to ask at every juncture - does this decision dovetail with my mission statement? Is it in line with achieving the goals I’ve identified?
At our organization, we’ve led mission statement trainings. We have a company mission statement, we held a session on building a personal mission statement, and some teams also have their own mission statements. We even wrote one for HR Party of One, our HR Youtube series and podcast!
"To be the most helpful voice in the world for HR Parties of One by providing history, clarity, and community around important HR questions, resulting in deeper level understanding that empowers the people who keep their organizations going and growing. Without being boring."
We hope this is something that resonates with you and you’re on board with this as a worthy mission.
So why should HR write a mission statement?
Why Write an HR Mission Statement
Many HR teams are focused on aligning their work with the goals of the organization. Doing so elevates the position and, in many cases, adds a deeper sense of achievement around even the administrative parts of the job.
If this sounds relatable to you, a mission statement that defines this as a goal can help you get there.
So how do you write a mission statement? In general, mission statements will cover three key things - what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.
For a little more context on our thinking here, our organization is a big proponent of Stephen Covey’s "7 Habits for Highly Effective People". We give each new hire a copy of the book and we periodically hold trainings and reviews on the material.
Covey popularized mission statements in this book, which he says are vital to successful organizations, because often, “people’s goals are totally different from the goals of the enterprise,” and “reward systems are completely out of alignment with stated value systems.”
An HR mission statement will articulate your company’s values, culture and business goals - and how the work you do helps make those things happen. It’s a touchstone for your organization and your work.
You can use Covey’s mission statement tool to help you build your mission statement.
Writing an HR Mission Statement
An example of an HR Mission Statement could be something like:
"We support and maximize the potential of our greatest asset, our employees. We implement policies and services that align with organizational goals, including creating a safe and compliant workplace, effective training and professional development, and addressing both the needs of individuals and the organization."
That one is decent, but it’s also pretty vague right? Kind of sterile. Boring even. So think about what your organization is particularly great at or focused on. Think about your culture and what’s important to your team. Is it sustainability? Great service? Revolutionizing your industry? Creating opportunities for your community?
To align HR with the organization’s goals, these should also be a core part of HR’s mission.
Here’s one pulled from Marquette University’s HR team:
"The Human Resources Department will be a catalyst; we aspire to be the model for excellence and leadership in human resources, emphasizing strategic and progressive human resource practices, high quality service, efficiency, employee growth and enrichment, and community. We will seek to implement human resource best practices and innovative human resource solutions. We will maintain a dedicated focus on customer service and continuous improvement, and we will remain committed to fostering an environment that sustains Marquette’s tradition of transformational education."
On that note, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from other mission or team mission statements. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel for a mission statement to identify your core goals. To that point, it’s also okay to change the mission statement - this isn’t something you set and forget. It’s actually a best practice to come back to the mission statement regularly and confirm it still represents your values and goals. If it doesn’t, change it!
Another benefit of the mission statement is it allows you to review your work and value-adding activities with your supervisor. You’re able to confirm that the work you’re doing “rhymes,” so to speak, with the rest of the team and what they envision for your role, as well as very clearly outlining the strategic nature of what you do. This, also, can elevate your role within your organization.
So whatever keeping your organization going and growing looks like to you, writing it down, sharing it with your boss, and revisiting it regularly can set you up for greater success this year and in the years to come.
As Covey says, a mission statement “that truly reflects the deep shared vision and values of everyone - creates a great unity and tremendous commitment.”
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