The 2021 Identity of HR Survey

Adeline Kon/HR Dive

Editor’s note: For additional insights, readers may purchase the full report.

The coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on HR professionals. As the highly contagious virus spread throughout the country, HR departments orchestrated workers’ mass transition from cubicle to couch and instituted symptom checks and mask mandates. They raced to comply with the country’s first national paid sick leave law. And now, they’re navigating vaccine mandates and incentives.

Over the summer, HR was once again asked to step up as calls for racial justice raised questions about diversity, equity and inclusion in the work world. Months later, the country elected a new president who promised to advance anti-discrimination measures, create new jobs and prioritize the worker.

HR professionals have been on the front lines before. The #MeToo movement brought worldwide attention to employer efforts against sexism and sexual misconduct. And as the national unemployment rate sunk to historic lows, HR departments invented new ways to attract and retain workers in a tight job market.

For all its relevance, HR departments operate internally, deep within employers. As industry observers, HR Dive wanted to know more about the people behind a business function that is both essential and veiled. In our inaugural Identity of HR Survey, we asked HR professionals to name their priorities and call out their challenges. We heard from 419 self-identified HR professionals, who told us how they thought their employers and colleagues perceived the work they do. And we gave them a chance to predict how industry trends will define the future of their profession.

In a survey about identity, we asked respondents to tell us about their professional and personal backgrounds. We requested basic demographic information, and participants filled us in on how much time they’ve spent in the industry, how big an employer they work for, and what size department they operate in.

Demographics of survey takers

Into which of these ranges does your age fall?
Percent of total Number of respondents

HR’s greatest priorities and challenges align

A quarter of respondents said their highest priority is maximizing value within budgetary constraints, and 22% said their greatest priority is culture.

Respondents’ pandemic-related challenges generally lined up with their priorities. Budgetary constraints and culture were again the most popular, vastly outpacing other challenges.

We also asked respondents to consider their challenges outside of the coronavirus. Employee training took the most votes, followed by a tie between hiring and culture. Budgetary constraints came next.

Culture and budgetary constraints are among the biggest challenges

% of respondents who said the following have been the biggest COVID-19 pandemic challenges and other challenges their department has faced in 2020
HR Dive asked respondents to identify their biggest challenges, both in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and apart from it. Considering the pandemic, employers' fiscal challenges may have included budget freezes, salary cuts and layoffs, for example. Outside of it, budgetary constraints may range from resources to personnel.

Practitioners disagree over how leaders view them

Respondents were likely to say their departments are seen somewhat favorably by employees at their organizations.

HR pros were more divided in how their departments are valued by leaders. While 28% said their departments are highly valued by leadership, 32% said they are very valued, and roughly the same amount said they are somewhat valued.

High value by leadership appeared to correlate with favorable feelings from employees. And smaller HR departments were more likely to feel as though they were viewed very favorably by employees.

Other topics covered in the report:

  • The importance of certifications
  • The prevalence of non-HR duties
  • The popularity of outsourcing tasks

Soft skills lead HR trends of the future

Of the trends HR Dive named, a majority of respondents said each trend will grow in importance. A plurality of respondents (73%) said a renewed focus on soft skills would grow in importance.

The hard skills trend proved the only exception. Half of respondents said that hard skills as a trend will stay the same, compared to the 42% who said it will grow in importance.