Human resource professionals - who have what might be one of the most thankless jobs on the planet - have a unique relationship with their colleagues.

They are either beloved - when putting together an employment package - or reviled - when holding the door open for someone on the way out.

While hiring and firing decisions are where they're most visible, HR pros engage in a wide variety of activities designed to make employees happier, healthier and more productive.

Here are some HR functions that don't immediately jump to mind:

1. Helping employees navigate mental health.

This isn't just a personal health issue - this is a workplace issue too. "In the U.S. alone, depression annually costs in excess of $1 trillion in lost productivity. The human and emotional cost is immeasurable," says Meaghon Reid, who administers Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

The program, which has trained more than 1 million people since its 2008 launch, uses a neurobiological approach to teach employees how to recognize signs of mental illness/substance abuse and get a person into treatment or, more urgently, avoid suicide.

And its HR-specific program, MHFA@Work, works with HR leaders to integrate a compassionate approach to mental illness, while addressing risk management and building/maintaining company culture that could take a hit if mental health concerns go unnoticed.

2. Thinking out of the box when it comes to finding candidates.

Lauren Cole is the Inclusion & Diversity Program Manager for The One Club for Creativity. A big part of her job is to look for candidates who bring creative skills and new ways of thinking to the table.

She says, "Entrepreneurs often go to the same places for the same types of people. I've learned to constantly check out new schools or other industries where people may have transferable skills. For example, a business analyst for an airline can easily translate those skills to being an analyst for a food & beverage company.

"Or, take veterans; they make great employees!" The key, she says, is for "civilians" aka HR to brush up their understanding of positions in the military, "outside of what they see on TV."

By way of example veterans account for nearly one third of the federal workforce. According to Beth Cobert, the former director of the Office of Personnel Management, the hirings are not a matter of obligation, but a recognition of their qualifications.

"Veterans bring distinctive training, skills, leadership, and experiences that we need at every agency in the federal government," she said.

3. Leadership training to reduce unconscious bias.

Chris Mullen, SPHR, Director of Human Resources, Housing and Dining Services at the University of Colorado, Boulder, notes, "When it comes to reducing unconscious bias, most people don't realize they are prone to it." And leadership training is critical to correct this bias.

What might such bias look like? Take for example, when it's assumed that new mothers don't want promotions, along with the additional responsibility that comes with them, but it's not assumed with new dads.

Barbara Tiano, Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) for The Human Capital Group, agrees.

"Leadership training is critical in order to grow a company with a welcoming culture. It is important that those leaders and staff who are 'clueless' about their unconscious bias have a safe place to learn and grow."

Who's providing the leadership training to eliminate such bias? HR pros, that's who.

4. Instituting and maintaining programs that contribute to the health and wellness of the workforce.

"HR is responsible for ensuring the organization decreases benefits costs year over year," says Natasha Bowmen, JD, SPHR, Founder & CEO of Performance ReNEW, which helps companies optimize their most important asset: their people.

"One strategy for benefit cost reduction is to ensure that the workforce is healthy."

So when your workplace comes up with creative ways of getting, and staying, healthy - such as discounts for being tobacco-free, sponsoring biometric screening, free exercise classes and the like, you can pretty much count on the fact that it's HR who's coming up with these initiatives.

5. Measuring workplace culture.

Maddie Grant of WorkXO has a unique approach to setting companies up for success.

"It's important for employers to understand how people actually work, as opposed to how they think people work," says Grant.

So along with her co-founders Charlie Grant and Jamie Notter, Grant created the "Workplace Genome™," a unique model to help an HR team with measuring and analyzing workplace culture.

Through a 15-minute digital survey, the Workplace Genome™ measures and analyzes company culture at the root level. Comprised of specific culture markers and building blocks that define who people really are and how they work, an HR team can see, through a digital reporting platform, the patterns - or perhaps contradictions - within the company culture... and then take steps to address them.

Savvy HR leaders "are using it for everything from employer branding campaigns, to recruiting strategies, to uncovering the complex relationship between the two cultures that will be combined as a part of a merger," says Grant.

6. Creating a top-flight place to work.

Measuring your workplace culture is only part of the equation in keeping your employees satisfied; then you have to implement a new culture based on such data.

"There's a lot that HR does behind-the-scenes to create a top workplace and award-winning culture, that people don't always think about," says Amber Clement, a career HR professional with more than 18 years under her belt.

"Employee and market surveys, instituting work-life balance, evolving safety programs, coming up with simple ways to reward and recognize employees that take very little time or's all part of what we do."

So the next time you think your HR manager exists solely to hire or fire you, think again; (s)he plays a key, though often-unseen, role in making your 9-to-5 the 9-to-5 you want.

Published on: Sep 19, 2017