Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Getting Inside Our Heads: 700 Of Our K-12 HR Peers Let Us Inside Theirs

By Emily Douglas-McNab & Allison Wert — May 11, 2015 5 min read
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In HR, we are obsessed with titles and names. This may be part of our nature since we maintain and update job descriptions, compensation systems, and org charts, but we have been playing the ‘name game’ for more than 40 years. HR offices were once known as “Personnel” departments before many morphed into “Human Resources” in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, a number of HR groups are changing names again.

The HR branch at Google and Uber is called “People Operations.” The HR department within Honda’s Research and Development arm changed its name to the “Office of Talent Management.” Even in education, we see district HR offices that now call themselves the “Office of Human Capital” or the “Office of Talent Acquisition.”

Some of you may look at this shift and think, “Who cares?” It’s just semantics, right? Indeed, as William Shakespeare would argue, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yet, we wondered, what name is most popular, what is preferred, and even more importantly, what motivates and drives decisions for this team of people?

To find out, we surveyed K-12 HR professionals in education in the spring of 2015, asking questions around what people are calling their department as well as their work experiences, background, and motivation. What follows are the responses of nearly 700 individuals.

Finding #1: Most district HR Leaders have building and/or classroom management experience.

74% of HR leaders in the survey noted that they were former teachers or building leaders. This means that most leaders have moved up through the ranks of education leadership.

Finding #2: District HR Professionals overall, however, do not have teacher or building leader experience.

Compared to 74% of HR leaders, only 40% of HR staff (including HR leaders and support staff) are former teachers or building leaders, leaving 60% of HR professionals in school districts who have no teacher, assistant principal, or principal experience.

Takeaway: HR leaders and department staff all bring different skills and experiences to the table. This means that HR professionals must work together--sharing their knowledge of building leadership or teacher education, as well as the practices of HR outside of education! HR Leaders with classroom and building leader experience must work to ensure all staff are keeping in mind what’s best for students. As an HR leader, think about how you can transfer your experience and knowledge to your team. As an HR professional, seek to learn and be mentored by an HR leader who has more extensive or varied experience than you do.

Finding #3: Most K-12 Districts are using the term “Human Resources.”

While other names are being used by the office that handles recruiting, hiring, growth, evaluation, and compensation within school districts, 70% of survey respondents actually refer to the office as “Human Resources.”

Finding #4: HR Professionals in K-12 Districts overwhelmingly prefer the term “Human Resources.”

HR professionals also have no interest in changing their department name. Despite new creative names appearing, when asked what term they would like, 84% of respondents note that they would still like the department to be called “Human Resources.”

Takeaway: While a few K-12 organizations are using other terms (and as we see a variety of terms in other sectors), most HR professionals in K-12 districts are still calling--and prefer to continue calling--their department “Human Resources.”

Finding #5: K-12 HR Professionals’ primary motivator is supporting employees.

At the end of the day, we all have different reasons why we are in the education sector as well as our current job role. Yet, when it comes to surveyed HR professionals overall, 65% of respondents noted that their primary motivator is engaging, growing, and supporting employees. Meanwhile, only 17% of HR professionals overall noted their primary motivator as impacting students.

Finding #6: Former teachers and building leaders are also motivated by student impact.

However, if we break down the data further, we see that 43% of former teachers and an even higher 56% of former building leaders cite student impact as their primary motivator.

Takeaway: While employee engagement is the top motivator for HR overall, those previously serving in teaching or building-level roles show an increased interest in student impact. We saw earlier in the survey that the majority of HR leaders came from these roles, so it is not surprising then to find that HR leaders take a stronger interest in student achievement than their support staff.

The challenge for HR leaders is to find a way to make student impact a more visible goal for their HR team. While they are not in front of students every day, the work HR does is crucial to student growth. Whether it’s sharing success stories from the classroom or tasking your staff with specific projects that tie to student achievement, find ways to encourage your staff to see the bigger picture. From recruiting and hiring to substitute management and compensation, help your team see how every area of HR ultimately benefits the students.

Finding #7: Student impact influences HR decision-making, yet drivers vary.

While responses did vary, HR professionals chose student impact as the leading factor that drives decisions in HR. In addition, 19% selected budget/funding, 14% said it’s their district’s strategic plan, and 11% said it’s the professional well-being of employees.

Takeaway: Even though student impact is not the primary motivator for all HR professionals, it is often the primary factor driving the actual decisions that take place in the department. With budget and funding close behind, it’s not surprising to find that most HR decisions are driven by the money available and student outcomes.


So what is in a name? Not much, it turns out. You could be a highly successful “Personnel” department or a struggling “Human Capital” or “Talent Management” office. More important than the term we use are the activities HR departments are doing that support staff and students. So, whether you call it human resources, talent management, human capital, or even personnel, the success (or failure) of an HR system lies in how well it supports people and the overall strategic goals of the organization.

About the Authors:

Emily Douglas-McNab is the Director of Human Capital at Battelle for Kids. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyDouglasHC.

Allison Wert is the Content Marketing Manager for Frontline Technologies, a provider of HR software for K-12. You can follow here on Twitter at @AllisonWert.

This article first appeared in the AASPA 2015 Best Practice Magazine. Posted with permission of the authors.

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The opinions expressed in K-12 Talent Manager are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.