People Operations vs. HR: The Key Differences

Three people operations employees sitting at a desk with a laptop open brainstorming

Based on their titles alone, people operations and human resources sound pretty darn similar. Both departments deal with the employees of an organization and the relationship between a company and its employees, but the two are not one in the same. 

Learn the difference between people operations and human resources and get a better grasp on the situations where you might leverage one or the other in this post.

What is HR?

HR stands for human resources. It’s the department that manages a company’s activities related to its employees, like hiring, onboarding, training, resolving conflicts, and so on. 

HR is responsible for many logistics that arise from employing people, like administering company benefits packages and ensuring staffers are paid for the time they’ve worked. HR also has an important compliance duty, ensuring that the company provides a safe and equitable work environment and follows all applicable labor laws. 

Human resources as a business function have been around for more than 100 years. Its origins date back to the early 20th century when business magnates like Andrew Carnegie began to recognize the value of strategic workforce management in helping an organization accomplish its goals. 

What are People Operations?

People operations fall under the umbrella of HR, but its duties have a more defined scope. A company’s people operations department is focused on optimizing the employee experience, which may include employee engagement, development, and retention initiatives. 

People operations think about employees the way marketing thinks of customers, looking for ways to improve their experience with the organization and increase satisfaction. People operations also concentrate on the way HR operates, working to modernize systems to make them more user-friendly. 

The idea of people operations as a formalized corporate department is a newer development within the last decade. The concept was pioneered by Laszlo Bock, who spearheaded Google’s famous People Ops department. Bock advocates for focusing on purpose rather than processes, which is also a great way to define what people operations does. 

People Operations Vs. HR: What’s The Difference?

The differences between HR and people operations are subtle; it’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, but it can be tricky to define. To help illustrate their distinct roles, here are some key ways in which HR and people operations differ. 


HR takes a practical approach, carrying out the day-to-day employee-related activities necessary for a company to function. People ops take a more conceptual approach, thinking strategically about the relationship a company is building with its employees and the culture that’s being created. 


HR operates within well-defined systems, which are essential to make sure work gets done efficiently. Payroll, for example, is administered the same way each week to ensure employees get their checks on time. People operations have more leeway in its processes, often experimenting with new ideas and looking for creative ways to get things done. 

Legal function

HR makes sure the company dots its i’s and crosses its t’s, legally speaking. HR specialists are responsible for knowing the law as it pertains to employers and helping the company operate within its bounds while accomplishing business objectives. HR is also the first line of defense if the possibility of a lawsuit arises. While people operations must work within these legal boundaries, PO specialists don’t typically focus on legal matters. 

Reactive vs. proactive

HR is traditionally reactive, dealing with employee-related issues as they arise. An HR representative might step in to act as a mediator in a disagreement between two employees, for example. 

People ops are proactive, seeking to establish practices that prevent issues from arising in the first place. In the case of managing workplace conflict mentioned above, people operations might host a conflict-resolution simulation to arm employees with the tools they need to effectively navigate workplace disputes on their own. 

Shared goals

Despite some nuanced distinctions, HR and people operations share many of the same goals, though their roles in achieving them may differ. Here are a few of their common objectives.


HR handles the candidate life cycle, overseeing the systems used to attract talent, collect applications, track candidates, administer interviews, and make job offers. People operations focuses more on the candidate experience, optimizing communications with applicants and working to provide a more seamless experience during the hiring process. 

Related: Candidate Experience Best Practices and Why You Should Follow Them

Employee retention

Retaining employees helps control recruiting costs and contributes to a more skilled workforce, so it’s in the best interest of both HR and people operations to focus on keeping good workers around. HR may do so by providing effective onboarding, coordinating an attractive benefits package, and prioritizing diversity and inclusion initiatives. People ops can aid in retention with strategies like employee development opportunities, employee recognition/rewards programs and creative perks. 

Related: Highly Effective Strategies for Employee Retention

Company culture

People operations play a major role in defining a company’s vision and creating a culture that supports it. HR helps execute the initiatives that bring that vision to life. For example, people operations might decide that greater employee autonomy is an important element in building the desired culture. HR might then implement a policy of unlimited PTO to empower employees with more control over their schedules. 


HR and people operations rely on technology to do their jobs and make those jobs easier. HR and PO leverage technology to streamline workflows, reduce costs, save time, and automate processes. People operations pay particular attention to employee use of technology, looking for ways to deploy it that will make workers’ lives easiest (i.e. digitizing old systems, using convenient apps instead of desktop software, etc.)

Do I Need an HR Department?

There’s no rule about whether a company must have a human resources department. Many small businesses with only a handful of employees find the duties can be managed by a leadership team member or shared among several team members. 

The Society for Human Resource Management advises that it’s a good idea to begin hiring dedicated HR personnel once the business grows past 10 employees. At this point, the duties have typically grown to warrant a full-time manager so company leaders’ time can be spent on business-centric activities. 

Do I Need a People Operations Department?

While people operations departments are usually found at enterprise-level organizations, adopting a people ops approach is never a bad idea. To revisit Laszlo Bock’s words, means instituting a ‘purpose over process’ mentality and viewing employees as the company’s best advocates. 

If you’re not ready to commit to a full-time HR or people operations staff or need more help deciding which is the right fit for you, bringing in an outside expert can help. Outsourced HR is incredibly common and offers a way for businesses of any size to reap the benefits of a more strategic approach to employer-employee relations. 

Related: Ways to Improve Your Employee Relations

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn