(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
- Source of HR information/guidance to business
- 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.