The Changing Roles of Human Resource Management: Q&A With Debbie Mackey

April 24, 2023

Over the past few years, human resource (HR) management jobs have been among the fastest growing in the nation. Debbie Mackey, distinguished lecturer in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business and faculty advisor for UT’s award-winning student chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), answered some frequently asked questions about this rapidly evolving field.

More and more employers are using HR strategically to retain/attract talent while also meeting their company’s business goals. What kind of personality and/or skills are most helpful for HR professionals looking to strike that balance? 

The most critical skills include core HR knowledge, business acumen and communication.

HR professionals have to be up to date on employment laws while keeping an open door to listen to employee issues. They need to be able to partner with other business functions, build relationships and communicate well with the departments for which they are finding talent and solving employee issues.

As HR roles become more specialized, what does the future look like for students who think they might prefer to be generalists? What about those who want to keep their options open regarding specialist vs. generalist? 

The title of HR business partner has replaced the HR generalist title in many companies. The HR business partner can be a generalist but also must build relationships with other business functions and know the impact HR has on each function. The compensation area has grown tremendously. There is a shortage of compensation analysts, and the pay can be above average. The wellness area has grown, so that is another area for HR graduates to focus on if they want to specialize in the healthcare and benefits side of HR.

Many of the recent changes and growth in HR came about as a direct result of COVID-19. Do you think these would have happened anyway, even without the pandemic? What other factors have contributed to HR’s recent growth and change? 

HR’s presence was growing before the pandemic but has been enhanced with credentials such as the Mental Health Ally Certificate offered by SHRM. We have learned to be flexible and take care of employees. HR is at the forefront of these changes, and that has made HR even more critical in retention and engagement. Also growing are diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions within HR, which help companies foster a great culture.

Generation Z seems to be aware of (and concerned about) burnout, flexibility, well-being and mental health more than previous generations. As these young people enter the workforce, how will their concerns change the way HR departments conduct business? 

Many UT graduates leave with not only their degree but a certification in SHRM to advance their knowledge and career. UT’s HRM program is aligned with SHRM and recognized nationally. Gen Z wants to make a difference, and they can do that by gaining HR skills and credentials before they even graduate.

Employee experience/engagement are in-demand workplace features right now. Which specific classes, organizations and/or activities at Haslam are best preparing our students to meet that need?

Our student SHRM chapter has a partnership with our professional chapter and a national presence. Students are mentored and start the transition to being a professional. As they build these relationships, they are made aware of this need in organizations. Within classes such as HRM 481 (Recruitment and Selection), students learn the connection between retention and engagement and how the entire employee life cycle can foster engagement.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,