Can HR Be a Business Partner When Business Isn’t Our First Concern?

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Mar 12, 2013

Marc Effron over at the New Talent Management Network recently published research on the 2013 State of Talent Managers. The findings are fascinating and get under the covers of what motivates many of us in the HR field to do what we do.

The question of where we stand as business partners has been front and center for myself and my teams over the past dozen plus years, and Marc addresses this as part of the study.

I’d like to say we are business partners and that is our primary concern, but I would be stretching reality on both accounts. We do partner, sometimes, on certain projects and daily services, but are we really “business partners?”

What is our first concern in HR?

I also like to say that we help drive strategy — but that’s also a stretch, especially since the last recession where senior HR leadership dropped down a level in their workload and are now doing more transactional activity. At some point you can’t do more with less even if you do have good HRIS systems.

My recent meeting with a dozen Chief Human Resources Officers at a networking event confirmed this statement. They are doing more transactional work lately, too.

So, what is our first concern in HR, specifically for those of us at the top of the food chain leading HR functions in companies of all sizes?

Marc Effron’s research shows that the dominant reasons for most of us is “humanistic.” The top reason is that we want to help people grow and develop (77 percent of respondents).

One might argue that this is a business priority — maybe the most important one. Certainly we have all had our fill of the statement “people are our most important assets.”

Just go to almost any Fortune 500 company website. You will probably find a section there on what it’s like to work at the company, leading off with a quote like this from the president or CEO.

Advocating for employees IS strategic

We know that’s not really true for many companies; just watch CNBC each morning and you will understand the priority placed on of financial results as the most important focus. Who’s kidding whom? Every time a business announces a multi-thousand person layoff, they are not putting people first!

Most of us stopped drinking the Kool-Aid a long time ago. Plus, many of us would also note that advocating for employee needs and insuring they get proper support and guidance IS important if not strategic. Does it really matter what bucket we put it in as long as we’re providing it?

I can also argue that we are starting to sound more and more like post-education guidance counselors instead of business partners. Maybe its time we recalibrate our roles and priorities.

Talent, in most organizations, is the big differentiator for determining long-term business success. Those who have it usually out perform those who don’t.

Yes, there are exceptions like Southwest Airlines. They succeed with a ton of solid “B” players who buy into their system. They are much like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, which takes a “team first” approach to winning.

Sitting at the epicenter of talent

Yet even these two examples have star performers intertwined in the fabric of their makeup. We just don’t always take notice.

HR sits at the epicenter of talent — both recruiting it and retaining it. We also are very involved in developmental activities. This is our value add to the business side of business. We have the skills and the opportunity to shine and contribute to our organization’s business success.

Additionally we play a significant role in employee benefits, and that’s often an area of HR that is left out of the conversation relating to our larger contributions. After compensation, benefits are usually the next largest business expense for most companies — and benefits can also be a differentiator in the recruitment and retention conversation.

In the end, we can be vital contributors by providing leadership and support in areas like talent and benefits. Who really cares if we are “ business partners?”

It really doesn’t matter what we are called — as long as we are contributing.

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