What do you call the head of HR?

CHRO, CFO, CTO: How many ways can you say ”head of HR”? As the job has evolved over the decades, so have the titles.
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· 5 min read

Following in the footsteps of superstars like Prince, Madonna, and Puff Daddy P. Diddy Diddy, today’s HR leaders are taking part in the time-honored tradition of changing their names to appear cooler.

As the HR profession has evolved over the decades, so too has the nomenclature associated with it. Newcomers have increasingly veered away from using “HR” in their job titles in favor of alternatives like “chief talent officer” or “chief people officer”—a term popularized by Google in the mid-aughts.

But it’s not just about appearing cooler: Previously known as the “personnel” function, HR now plays a more strategic role, explained Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO search practice.

“The role is shifting dramatically,” Kaplan said. “There’s an appetite, really across the universe, for better HR and for HR to play a strategic role.”

Evolution. The Covid-19 pandemic has driven a shift in responsibilities for people leaders, who now need to be part public health expert, part industrial psychologist, with some software and communications duties thrown in, too. And the Great Resignation has made the battle for talent increasingly more challenging. As a result, people teams more frequently report directly to the CEO, rather than a chief administrative, operating, or finance officer, or even general counsel.

Kaplan also noted that it’s not unusual for oversight of office management, real estate, and even a company’s fleet of private aircrafts to be part of HR’s role, though it doesn’t seem these responsibilities have yet to influence titles.

Zenefits, a benefits technology company, has encouraged organizations to replace previous paradigms of workforce management with “people operations,” highlighting the imperative for the function to be more strategic and data-driven. In a recent report, it noted that job listings for positions with “people operations” in the title grew 10x faster on LinkedIn than those with “HR” in 2021.

New names. Priscilla Koranteng, the chief people officer at Indeed, requested a change from her predecessor’s title, “SVP, global human resources,” upon accepting the role at the beginning of this year. In a conversation with HR Brew, she shared her desire to signify a shift in focus from a resource-oriented, administrative function to a more people-centric one.

In previous HR jobs at Kellogg’s and DXC Technology, Koranteng’s titles encompassed global talent and diversity. Companies such as Freddie Mac and Papa John’s have also added “diversity” to their head of HR’s job titles.

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So has DocuSign, where Iesha Berry is the chief diversity and engagement officer and head of people experience. By adding “diversity” to their HR leaders’ titles, these companies are signaling their commitment to DE&I. Culture, once HR’s topic du jour, has had a similar effect, with organizations including Reddit, Greenpeace USA, and Vroom adding the word “culture” to their head of HR roles.

At Cisco, Francine Katsoudas’s title changed from EVP, chief people officer, to EVP, chief people, policy, and purpose officer in March 2021. This title, she said, better speaks to the six functions within her purview: people and communities, sustainability, workplace resources, government affairs and policy, country digital acceleration, and social justice and advocacy.

“The people, policy, and purpose organization…intentionally brings together the teams, expertise, and functions that operationalize our purpose throughout our business,” Katsoudas wrote HR Brew via email. “While our entire company executes our purpose, uniting these areas creates a powerful ecosystem that sets the vision, builds the strategy, and ensures this work positively impacts communities around the world.”

Kezban Terralavoro, director of people and organization at Dodge Construction Network, shared a similar story with HR Brew via email: “In my organization, we rebranded HR as ‘people and organization’ to better represent the function and our holistic approach in supporting each individual (employees) and those individuals as an aggregate (organization) in order to run a successful business.”

It’s still HR. Kaplan acknowledged the value of a brand refresh for the field, and the benefits a new job title can have, but said he’s seen some confusion from would-be CHRO candidates, and mixed messaging to employees too.

His advice? Stick to the original. “Make it your head of HR, as long as it’s the senior-most HR executive…It’s less about the name of the function [and] more about educating the world on what the function should do.”—AK

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.