The Role of the HR Business Partner

The Role of the HR Business Partner

What is the role of an HR Business Partner?
What is the ideal career path to becoming one?
What is the difference between an HR Generalist and an HRBP?
How do you ensure a real partnership with the business?
What is the biggest challenge as an HRBP?

These are just some of the questions that I tried to address in an informal webinar organised as a part of a cycle of events that VF has organised together with the MSc in Management of Human Resources at the University of Milan, coordinated by prof. Luca Solari. For many of the students attending this and similar university degrees around the world, the role of the HR Business Partner is often felt like a bit of a mysterious presence,

The topic is broad, and I tried to respond based on my experience, rather than on the theories of the many books and articles on the topic. The origin of the role is linked to Dave Ulrich‘s work, particularly his book Human Resource Champions. More in general, it has been linked to the concept of HR Transformation that he also proposed. Ulrich never suggested one only way of framing the role of an HR Business Partner, but rather provided a framework of reference for organisations to design the right role, balancing their act across four dimensions: administrative expertise, employee championing, change and strategic partnering. This aspect is important because there is a risk to design HR as a “machinery”, copying external models that will ultimately fail to deliver value.

Becoming an HR Business Partner

Personally, I did not study to become an HR Business Partner, and I doubt that there can be an education path strictly designed for this role. Part of this is linked to what I mentioned above: every organised should have tailored the role of the HR Business Partner to its reality. There is also another aspect. Depending on the role that HR has in an organisation, and its overall maturity, this role needs to balance a set of skills that might be different depending on the context. I have seen companies successfully implementing job rotations, by which the HRBP role comes from the business. I have also seen, however, companies failing miserably in doing so.

In my personal growth, I can however list four elements that helped me become an effective HR Business Partner:

  1. Having Experience across different HR Functions. Thanks especially through the HRIS implementation at Diesel, I have been able to confront myself with basically all HR processes, working on their understanding and redesign. Payroll is particularly meaningful to mention because it is often the one more pulled apart from the attention of HR leaders. But the reality is that, like all foundations, if it is not managed correctly, you’ll have issues.
  2. Developing Business Acumen. It is not an easy competency to describe and to be frank, I think it is more of a set of complementary skills. In essence, you need to understand the business your company operates in, not just by the big number, but understanding the way the customer of your company think and act. This is the reason why, for example, I designed my HR Retail team to be field-based, because it is the best way to also have a continuous understanding of the relationship with the end customer of our organisation. The best skill to trigger this kind of acumen is curiosity.
  3. Having a Systemic View. At University I attended two courses on General Systems Theory held by prof. Giuliano Giorio. Back then my feeling was that these were truly useless, lacking the “scientificity” of other disciplines, but above all any immediate application. I started to change my mind, when, analysing how the European Union was structuring its funding mechanism, I needed a way to glue together the understanding of accounting principles, strategic decisions and country politics. Those Systems Thinking elements are even more rooted today in my experience as truly essential. Approaching HR from a solely psychological point of view, for example, often leads us to focus too much on the individual, and neglect team dynamics. If you take a sociological view instead, you risk of thinking too much of the team. Also, an economic point of view, while providing context, risks of being once again too narrow. The secret is blending all these together, reaching out to the specialist when needed to understand one side of the issue.
  4. Developing Negotiation Skills. If there is one skill that I bring onward from the university years until now, is that of negotiation. Not because of the number of negotiations this role is implied into, but rather in the mindset that “growing the cake” has instilled in me. This concept, championed by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes, is critical in approaching the role of HR. Every day you assist in a number of potential conflicts (performance, productivity, reorganisation requests, changes, new projects), that all need to be defused before they can trigger their negative energies. This is also the only way by which the HR role does not transform itself into a fireman (constantly putting off the emerging fires).

I think that all these elements are traceable in the way Human Resource management courses are now designed. Yet, there is one aspect that is very important to underline: the role fo experience. Many of the elements that I have learned are not coming from books or academic research but by a constant flow of experience. Which is also why, despite twenty years of work experience, I consider myself still so eager to constantly learn.

Adding value as an HR Business Partner

What is the added value of having an HR Business Partner for me is the question of what is the added value of having HR in an organisation. There are many organisations where, unfortunately, HR fails to demonstrate its value, and its function is subsequently outsourced and resized. There are many other organisations where, instead, the role of HR is acknowledged because of the business value it drives. Is it always financially measured? I think it can be measured financially, but often what is important is that the business perceives it this way. I’ve never been really fond of the discussion that I kept invariably hearing at all HR events for the last 20 years, about how to get HR invited at the table. To me, HR builds the table on which most business-specific decisions are taken. This is where I see the role of the HR Business Partner is critical in defining the perceived role of the entire HR function in an organisation.

This is also linked to how HR has worked so far. Besides the administrative focus, there has been a tendency for many HR functions to focus on individuals for a big part of their work. This included setting up individualised processes, looking at talent in terms of individual development, preparing career plans for the individuals and so on. Many HRBP roles have also been designed this way, whereby the HRBP was assigned to a person not to a function, for example. We need to balance this a lot more with a focus on the organisation and its culture. What we missed is the cultural advocating aspect of the HR role, and the organisation design aspect of it. Unfortunately, especially Org Design skills are often not developed enough in many HRBPs.

Here stands the entire concept of Business Partnership. It’s not about knocking at every door to get invited to the meetings, but rather provide value by doing the HR work. Think just about the control of Labour Cost. How relevant this is for an organisation? Those that argue that HR doesn’t really have the power to do much, are those that are lacking the minimum understanding of financials and numbers. Again, a fundamental onto which we can then build all our actions as HR. I built a large team at VF, including partners and specialists, all because I could consolidate a strong enough business case, and I held myself accountable for reaching it.

Effective HRBPs can improve the reputation of the entire HR function of an organisation. In contrast, less effective ones tend to drag down the overall reputation, notwithstanding the role of COEs or other specialists. They often tend to build technocratic instances, perceived as bureaucratic and that further undermine the entire perception of the function.

The role of Analytics

This also links to the importance of Analytics for this role. Numbers are important across all roles in an organisation. For me, it is part of that business acumen I mentioned above. Which means not understanding numbers in terms of absolute value, but in terms of relative impact within the business, we operate in. This is more and more important in the domain of HR, where People Analytics is a hot topic today. First of all, this is a domain where probability reigns, not a certainty. The numbers you learn to confront yourself with all relate to an industry, a context, a specific situation. Is an employee attrition index of 15% good or bad? If you are a company that is growing, trying to leverage its current competencies to succeed, well, that number is too big. If you are instead trying to transform your business completely, and moving on new competency areas, that might be too low. If you work in retail, well you might have found nirvana 😉.

HR’s Duty of Care

One aspect that I mentioned is the importance of care in the work of an HR Business Partner. I think this is the most difficult aspect of our work to be defined. And the reason is exactly in that balancing act between individual and organisational needs. I always tell that HR is not a “trade union representative”, nor an “individual counsellor”. Caring is not taking the hand of every person in the organisation as they enter and walk their professional life. Rather for me, it’s about being there when there are issues, anticipating effects wherever possible, and caring for the outcome. Caring is also not about risk management. I’ve heard too many colleagues stepping in managing certain grievances, only when there was a legal risk for the company.

I’ve made an example in one of the issues of my newsletter when I have spoken of building compassion at work, of how I had to manage a termination, often one of the hardest acts in an HR profession.

One of the professions where caring is more important is in nursing. Sister Simone Roach, a Canadian nurse, developed an approach often referred to as the Theory of Caring which held 5 Cs at the beginning, to which a 6th was added by the same Roach later on. These are Commitment, Conscience, Competence, Compassion, Confidence and, last, Creativity. I truly believe these rules hold true also for the HR function, and especially for the HRBP role. With one important element to remember: the duty of care goes both towards the individual and the organisation.

Theory of Caring for HR. An Attempt to Visualise.
Theory of Caring for HR. An Attempt to Visualise.

This is why there’s no paradox in caring for individuals and running a reorganisation with job cuts, for example. If done well, with the correct reasoning and a choice of people based on objective standards, such activity will often be made in the hope to promote better employment opportunity for the rest of the organisation, for example. And here becomes clear how the Duty of Care constantly tests the ethical standards of the HR function and roles.

The Future of HR is Human

All this brings to the conclusion that I have already written: The Future of HR is Human. As HR professionals, we need to become more and more acquainted with technologies, sure. AI and Machine Learning will become part of our job. Digital will be at the core of all transformations. But, what matters most is always the fact that organisations are made of people, and we are responsible for that specific area in which individuals and organisations meet. My entire journey of analysing the Meaning of Work, for example, is profoundly influenced by this aspect, and the need to understand more, beyond plain motivation. Same the idea of building an intentional organisation, where organisation design decisions are not just technocratic or engineering features, but the result of human actions.

I truly believe that HR Business Partnering is one of the most exciting jobs that exist. Yes, you will still spend a lot of time explaining what you do to your friends of the family.

But believe me: caring for people in organisations is a hell of a great job!

What do you think? Comment below.

Sergio Caredda - Blog Signature

Cover Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

  1. Avatar of Nicole Snijders
    Nicole Snijders

    Thanks for sharing! I thinking a lot of hr professionals are struggling with this topic(s) for years. Interesting view on the human factor!

  2. Avatar of peopleHum

    In order to hire the best talent, you need to create an experience that candidates will love. But, before we show you how to create a stellar one, here are some insights that hiring managers should know about the candidate experience.

  3. Avatar of Earl King

    Awesome piece Sergio.
    Thank you for being so authentic.

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