Chris Russell

2 min read

Human Resources

The Role of the HR Business Partner

You’ve heard the term HR business partner. You may even have that role at your company. But what is an HR business partner does and how is the role different from other HR professionals?

The Society for Human Resource Management describes an HR business partner as “responsible for aligning business objectives with employees and management in designated business units.”

A simpler definition comes from SHRM columnist and HR author Martin Yate who says an HR business partner is “a senior individual contributor who supports and collaborates with one or more of the organization’s managers.” 

Where other HR professionals handle all manner of administrative tasks like compensation, benefits administration and company policies, an HR business partner is tasked with helping individual departments and their leaders and supervisors with managing and developing their team to best achieve the business goals of the company.

The role combines a high degree of strategic thinking with the ability to craft and implement solutions to talent management challenges. An HR business partner doesn’t have a supervisory role, instead works collaboratively with managers, coaching them and providing performance management advice. They also evaluate skills, anticipate future needs and help to retain and hire the best talent.

What do HR Business Partners Do?

In some ways the role is similar to what HR generalists and managers do. There is overlap, especially in smaller organizations where generalists wear multiple hats. The difference is that HR generalist and managers spend most of their time focused on operational matters and managing the HR staff.

Business professor and HR thought leader first suggested what became the HR business partner in his 1997 book Human Resource Champions. He argued that human resources has four roles: Administrative Expert; Employee Champion; Change Agent; Strategic Partner. An individual might fill just one role, more often they would fill multiple roles.

At the time, HR was still emerging from its “personnel office” past. The notion of being a strategic partner to the company and more directly to individual units and managers was innovative and appealing. Large organizations took the suggestions literally, creating the business partner role, supported by HR specialists in a center of excellence and service centers to handle administrative matters.

Ten years after the book was published, Ulrich wrote in HR Magazine that “Being a business partner may be achieved in many HR roles.” He explained, “Instead of measuring process (for example, how many leaders received 40 hours of training), business partners are encouraged to measure results (for example, the impact of the training on business performance).”

Since that article was published, Ulrich says the role of HR business partner has evolved so much it should now be thought of as HR business partner 2.0. He list 13 “pivots” in the job. For example, in describing who HR’s customers are, he says, “HR stakeholders have evolved from internal (employees, line managers, organization) to external (customers, investors, community).” 

Ulrich’s pivots can be seen in organizations of all sizes. Even in smaller organizations the HR generalists recognize the need to take a holistic view of the company’s needs.

HR’s Reliance on Business Partners

Large organizations have expanded their reliance on HR business partners, though many, as a McKinsey analysis found, still “get dragged into transactional and operational issues. In large measure, this occurs because most HRBPs retain some operational role.”

To achieve the strategic influence and success Ulrich first proposed more than 20 years, HR business partners need to access all the tools of an HR professional and have the business acumen to understand financial reports and balance sheets, market challenges and customer needs.

McKinsey, a global business consultancy, proposes renaming the job “Talent Value Leader” to emphasize the “different set of responsibilities and accountabilities.”

Whether they’re a talent value leader or HR business partner, McKinsey concludes that the job today must “blend talent, business and financial experience to be able to identify which talent levers can yield the most business value.”

John Zappe Reporting

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