If you go to an HR conference or read articles about human resources (even the ones that I've written) you might get the idea that HR is full of exciting planning meetings, coaching managers, and designing strategy for succession planning.

And that stuff does happen. For sure. But, the day to day--especially for generalists, employee relations, and HR departments of one or two--that's not what it looks like.

HR Guru Robin Schooling wrote about the difference between "Conference" HR and "Real World" HR and she summed it up pretty well. Here's my favorite example:

Conference HR: "The Future of Work is NOW!" Real World HR: "Someone is smearing feces on the walls of the men's restroom and we're unsure how to go about investigating this..."

This is the reality. And it's the day-to-day. My favorite personal story is the woman who came to me, upset that she had been fired. She wanted to sue. Why, you may ask, had she been fired? She sent nude pictures of herself to her coworkers. I explained that I would back up her manager here and she had no grounds for a lawsuit. But, she protested, the pictures were professionally done! (I admit that I didn't ask if her coworkers of different races, gender, or age were allowed to send nude photos without consequence, because I made an assumption that they did not.)

Other examples?

From Reddit's Legal Advice Forum:

These are all from within the last week. Workplace problems abound, and HR is sent to handle many of them. Sometimes, of course, it's the HR manager who is the problem (like this case where the HR manager wanted to force a woman with thinning hair to wear a wig).

There are bad managers, smelly employees (and managers), FMLA issues, squabbling department heads, gossipsexual harassment, age discrimination, racial discrimination, workers' compensation questions, and the never-ending health insurance problems.

This is what real HR looks like. We talk about the advantages of flexible schedules and managing by performance and not butt-in-seat time, but then we have to deal with managers who freak if someone takes an extra 15 minutes at lunch and employees who think to be exempt means they can do whatever they want.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted. And on top of all of this, there are piles of regulations that you need to understand and apply fairly, even when the courts can't agree on what the regulations actually mean. 

This is real HR. It's a fabulous and interesting job (every day is different), but don't think for a minute it's just about policy and planning. Because any minute now, someone will come through your door to complain that their coworker chews too loudly and you'll have to know how to respond.