Differences Between an HR Manager and an HRBP

(This is not about these two job titles per se, it’s about the differences in how HR practitioners act – I am assigning the two titles for this discussion).

Many business leaders are not familiar with, much less buy into, the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP) model.  My experience has shown that this is because they don’t understand what it is.  Let me try to explain the HRBP model and why I think it is misunderstood.

Depending on the industry you work, HR may not have evolved as quickly as a function to gain the respect it is meant to have.  When I ask CEO’s what keeps them up at night, I always hear one or both of these responses – capability/culture and/or the P&L/costs.  That tells me the two most important partners to the CEO are the HR leader and the Finance leader.  You’d be hard pressed to come up with one decision that is made for the business that doesn’t impact both people and money.  So how a business leader does not have their senior HR person at their table at all times like they do their Finance leader baffles me.  Nowadays I do see HR at many tables, but it now becomes a matter of how effective that HR practitioner is while in that seat that affects the reputation of HR.

Here are some examples I see of the different areas of focus between an HRBP and an HR Manager:


    • Strategic partner to CEO/Leadership team
    • Organizational structure
    • Total rewards
    • Talent acquisition strategy
    • Talent development/succession planning
    • Employee retention
    • Engagement measures and strategies
    • Change management
    • HR systems advisor
    • Complicated employee relations issues
    • Executive advisor on HR issues
    • Legal issues
    • Business impact of HR decision

HR Manager:

    • Source of HR information/guidance to business
    • Sourcing/interviewing/hiring/onboarding
    • Compensation and benefits management
    • Management of employee records
    • Policy and procedure management
    • Performance management
    • Engagement strategy execution
    • Training and development
    • HR systems administration
    • Day to day employee relations issues
    • Health, safety and wellness
    • Legislative compliance
    • Compliance to HR policies and the law

An HRBP understands the business priorities, takes into consideration the strategic objectives of the organization, considers how the business leader would want to execute on something, THEN assesses the options based on the HR policies, programs and employment laws and comes up with the best business solution.  The HR Manager typically thinks linearly, focusing mostly on the policies, programs and laws.  Sadly what I tend to see a lot of is the HR practitioner operating as a Manager, not as an HRBP.

Let me share an example of how I saw this come to life in an organization.

In an operations/warehouse environment, an employee collapsed with a stroke while at work one evening.  Colleagues performed CPR to revive him and emergency responders transported him to the hospital in a conscious state.   The night shift crew were naturally very shaken and concerned for their friend.  Early the next morning when the day shift arrived, a rumor had circulated that this employee had passed away the night before.  The HR Manager and Senior HRBP were speaking in the office when a colleague of the employee came to the office in tears, asking if the rumor was true.  The HR Manager  didn’t want to call his wife too early in the morning to get an update on his condition.  The HRBP wanted to call his wife, get an update, then gather employees together to share the update and alleviate the concern.  The HR Manager would not agree on the basis she is not authorized to speak to employees about an employee’s medical condition.   The HR Manager was steadfast that no one from the company can speak to employees and share anything related to this employee.  The HRBP was adamant that the employees deserve an update and suggested in order to protect privacy they wouldn’t share details beyond he was alive and stable.  There didn’t appear to be a common ground.

So who was right? Does the employee’s right to privacy trump alleviating concern amongst peers?  Technically the answer is yes, so the HR Manager was not wrong in her approach.  However, as an HR business partner, we have to think about the impact of the 80 employees on the floor worried, thinking their colleague may have passed away, and what impact that has on the productivity of their day.  Understanding the business issue (employee productivity and concern), weighing the risks (employee privacy) and coming up with a recommendation for the business leader is what HR is there for – if we fail to approach most issues this way, and simply react based on what the “book” would tell us, then we are not doing the business or the employees justice.   The business leader, after hearing the risks, decided he wanted employees to be brought up to speed on his condition and they contacted the wife for an update then gathered employees together to share that he was doing well.

As effective HRBP’s we often have to look beyond the linear, technical answer and create a solution that satisfies the business need.  I’ve made recommendations that would create some legal exposure, but the decision was still better for the business overall.  Thinking linearly, literally, and within confines of the “rule book”, or think broadly, outside the box, and with the business needs as the priority (without breaking laws of course).  I would argue the most effective HR practitioners are the latter thinkers.

One other area that sets HRBPs apart from HR Managers is influence skills required to adequately support senior leaders.  Being an effective HRBP requires courage, to speak openly and candidly with the business leader, especially when it may contradict the leader’s thinking.   HR often gets a bad wrap because we will simply execute what the business leader thinks we should do, versus have the courage to provide opposing views and solutions.  Speaking from experience, the last thing a business leader wants is simply for their team to do what they say.  Very few employees have the courage to challenge the leader of a business – I believe it is the HRBP’s responsibility, not only to the leader, but to the business as a whole, to ensure they have all the information, think about all the options, and consider contrary views.  Someone just has to be willing to help them do that – and I see that someone as the HRBP.

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A New Year – time for reflection, gratitude and optimism

As we begin this new year, new decade, tradition has instilled upon us the need to reflect on our past, think about what lies ahead and what we may choose to do differently as a result. If I may, I am going to make this slightly more personal than previous and future articles, mostly because I can (😊), but I promise to relate it back to the work environment along the way!

This week I will host an annual family brunch that we do every year. This tradition started many years ago by one of my cousins who sadly passed away far too early at the age of 49. At times we’ve had up to 65 family members attend (my father was one of nine children and I am the youngest of their 22 offspring) and it is filled with stories, traditions, laughter, memories, pictures, piano and singing. It is a great reminder to me and my now 20-year-old daughter of the importance of making time for family and reflecting on memories and building new ones.

A few days after that I’m flying to England to take my daughter for her semester abroad exchange program at Oxford University. Watching her build her path to success and excellence over the years fills me with pride and warmth. She has shared with me how I and her father have acted as significant role models for her in achieving success, setting and going after her goals, treating others with respect and kindness, and enjoying the fruits of her labour.   This often causes me to look back over the years and wonder how did we do this? Here’s my attempt at an answer for that.

The field of HR found me when I began my MBA back in the early 90’s. Upon graduating with an HR concentration, it was clear to me then that HR was what I wanted to do. After my first few HR jobs, I was determined to someday be the head of HR for a large Canadian business, and I set the course to get there. Throughout the years I had to make some tough choices, as while my career was extremely important to me, so was being a present and supportive mother to my daughter. Often times those desires clash and if I had a dollar for every time I coached both leaders and employees on the importance of work life balance I’d have retired and moved to Hawaii years ago.

For most of my daughter’s life I was a single mom. Work life balance was quite a challenge for me, especially in some of the organizations I worked – fast paced, demanding, strong work ethic, etc… Add to that my work ethic – hands on, in the field, accessible to business partners and my team, etc… I was determined to do the best job I could at both – my career and being a mother. So, here’s what I have learned and shared as perspective over the years on work life balance:

    • First and foremost, work life balance is what you make it. Most companies will take whatever you will give. I’ve rarely had a manager say “No, don’t be silly, I don’t need you to put in that extra effort right now when things are so crazy around here”.   It was up to me to determine how much I give to my work, when to say “sure” and when to say “no”. Don’t leave it up to your organization to define that for you. You own your work life balance.
    • Find ways to incorporate the two (work and family). I had the great fortune of hosting our key talent from Workopolis at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver as winners of our top recognition award that year.  Seven employees, along with a guest, spent 3 days attending Olympic events. Everyone brought their significant other. I brought my 10-year-old daughter.
    • In every role, every business, my colleagues all knew not to schedule meetings with me after 5:00pm if they needed me physically present. I made a deliberate attempt to be home for dinner every night, especially since I often travelled for work. When I was in my home town, dinnertime was very sacred to me. That didn’t mean I had the luxury of only working 8-5, it simply meant I packed up every day in time to be home for dinner, and after my daughter went to sleep, I’d often open up my laptop.
    • As I evolved in my career, I learned to be very deliberate in the organizations I joined to ensure the values were akin to mine. As I took on more senior roles, where I was responsible for molding the clay of the culture of the organization, naturally the values were aligned. As employees saw me balancing demands for myself, and supporting their demands wherever possible, the culture evolved to one of trust and respect. If work life balance (beyond stating it in a job posting) wasn’t a “thing” in a company, then I wasn’t willing to join. Simple as that.
    • Finally, finding a manager or business leader to act as your mentor, friend, and sometimes moral compass that you can count on to support you in your endeavor for balance is key to success. This is a two-way street though – you have to build the trust and prove you can be counted on to get the job done and meet/exceed your goals and expectations in order for your manager to support you. I have been SO fortunate in my career to have had worked for great leaders. At times of personal need, whether it be a sick parent, a child who sprained her ankle at a volleyball game mid afternoon, a school assembly when your child is being recognized for outstanding student of the year, or a dog’s surgery, when I’m needed as a mom, without fail, I will be present. But I never let my organization or my boss down – I always found ways to be there for both.

As we ring in a new year, a new decade, and we think about things we want to do differently, I encourage my HR colleagues to think about how to achieve balance both personally and in your organization, and also business leaders to consider the tone you set for your organization so your teams know while jobs can be replaced, family cannot. Creating a culture of trust, respect and accountability equates with a culture that supports career and personal life.

I’d like to wish all of my colleagues, clients, friends and family a very happy and healthy new year. I hope this new decade brings you success, laughter, gratitude and optimism. A special wish to my remarkable daughter as she embarks on another one of her many experiences of a lifetime. I am so proud of you and can’t wait to see what lies ahead for you!

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