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

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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.

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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.

Mark Fogel is the Head of HR for Success Academy Charter Schools, New York City's fastest growing Charter School Network. He is also the Co-founder of Human Capital 3.0, a national HR advisory boutique with some very big clients. His previous experience includes gigs as a Chief HR Officer for two multinational corporations. He is also a senior adjunct professor at Adelphi’s Graduate School of Business and the recipient of several major national HR awards of distinction including the SHRM Human Capital Leader of the Year. He can be reached at:


11 Comments on “Can HR Be a Business Partner When Business Isn’t Our First Concern?

  1. It is this kind of thinking that dooms HR to being a second tier player and not a business partner. Thankfully many HR professionals have rejected this approach and are integral players in their company’s success.

  2. Many people keep suggesting that transparency will bring about the final evolution of HR — and send it back to the business. What remains will be processes and automation. Someone needs to run that, but the core/critical components of HR will be owned by the business and its leaders.

    I sort of like that thinking.

  3. I
    think that HR is slowly moving towards being business centric and not
    completely transactional in the present days. I would say – HR as a function
    should take up Cost Optimization as their prime Accountability and
    support the Business in enhancing their Profitability rather than Retention or
    Engagement etc… as each and every
    deliverable within this function will have a direct or an indirect impact on the
    cost for the Company.

    Now, working / accepting proportion of Gross
    Margin or Profitability as main deliverable for HR can be a very big challenge
    but is NOT something which is not practical.
    First and foremost, the mindset within
    the company have to change and embrace HR as a Strategic function and not rule
    it out as a mere line function. HR is a
    line function only upto the Operational layer and once we move up the ladder
    within the function, it is more Strategic in nature.

    The HR Process, Strategy have to align very specifically with the Business process
    and should be striving towards maintaining logical balance between Talent
    acquisition and Development keeping employee Performance & morale into

    HR as a function should also concentrate on research oriented procedures and practices rather than being completely jargonized. The reports and Metrics should look into providing a tangible VALUE delivered by HR against Planned rather than just
    throwing some numbers with respect to number people hired, man-hours trained, %
    of attrition etc…

    So, considering the points above, I would certainly mention that the concept/practice of HR Business Partner is logical and Practical.

    After saying this, I would also like to mention that this practice is still in its nascent stage but showing clear signs of moving towards the right direction. The initiation and work is noticed in few new sectors like online Retail companies like Amazon and few companies within the Creative media space.


  4. This is precisely the attitude that keeps HR from the C-Suite. Be a strategic partner like Marketing, Sales, Finance, IT and Manufacturing and HR will make a substantial contribution to the corporation’s performance. That means jobs, opportunity as well as personal and professional development of the organization’s human capital.

  5. I appreciate the comments and I have certainly struck a nerve for many readers. A couple of points, First, Laurie brings up a great thought in “the evolution of HR is to send it back to the business”(eventually – time will tell). Second, I am not saying we are not important and at times critical, or strategic….my point is our contributions are different from most functions …and I challenge our role as a “business partner” when our contributions are so different from other functions…

  6. First it sounds like you are slamming Southwest Airlines and I don’t understand you saying they have a bunch of B players that “buy into their system”. That’s a slam and I just don’t understand why.
    Second HR is not a “special” function. HR is unique just like Sales, Marketing, Operations are unique. I think we need to take off the “hair shirt”. HR’s main concern should be the business. We don’t just go off and look for ways to make employees feel good. HR works for a company and that company is a business not Disneyland. And HR’s reason for being is take business’ strategy and align people/employees to that strategy. Programs, plans, C&B — whatever it takes — but it MUST be aligned and support the business.
    Employees work for companies — companies do not work for employees.

  7. I would have to agree with John R. Bell that this attitude is what keeps HR from the C-Suite. A bad attitude always keeps employees from advancing and a bad attitdue / perspective that is read by C-Level individuals that has this connatation about HR will also prevent HR from moving to the top. It is vital that Human Resource Leaders KNOW and UNDERSTAND their business and the industry of the organization. Only knowing and understanding the business will lead to actually being a strategic partner. Once this is accomplished, attracting and retaining the top talent becomes easier because the HR leader first knows and understands the business. Yes, financial results are a large part of the decision making process — but the people that drive those numbers are also important. Being an Executive means making very difficult decisions and making the best decisions to move the company forward and continue its growth while still developing the staff to support that organization. There are always a lot of moving parts to the decisions that need to be made and decisions are made to the best of everyone’s ability given the information available at the time of the decision. It is easy to take the attitude above … but having that attitude shows me that you haven’t been in an Executive level role where you’ve had to make some tough and challenging business decisions. The reason that you aren’t a “Business Partner” is 100% because you aren’t making the “business your first concern”…..

  8. Mark — Thanks for citing the NTMN 2013 State of Talent Mangers study! The core issue that hit me was the question of do most HR leaders care — truly, deeply care — about the financial success of their company. The data suggest that about half simply do not, and the number degrade sharply as wel move into sub-functions like L & D.

    Folks will argue that HR is moving in the right direction, and that may be the case. But the data suggests we have a long way to go. Bottom line is that you shouldn’t ask for a seat at the table if you don’t like what’s being served there.

    For a free copy of the full report, you can click here

  9. It is interesting to find perspectives such as those that you outline Marc. Rather than attitude, it is common sense for HR to pick business outcomes first. Following outcomes, it is about evidence e.g. quantifiable evidence to support HR decision-making. Finally, it ‘should’ be about people. However, this does not negate the fact that people are an organisation’s most important resource.

  10. I found the article you wrote thought provoking. I recently started a consulting business. I am an Operational Executive, not HR, though we do provide consulting in HR. One of our most requested areas of program and leadership support is in the area of HR. The contacts we receive are usually due to the lack of strategic engagement by HR.

    I have been lucky enough to experience very engaged Human Resources professionals as well as those who are more tactical and focused on benefits and HRIS.

    The common theme of requests, HR does not see itself as supporting the business intitiatives because they are focused solely on the tactical. Yes, there may be a benefit by cost savings in areas of recruitment, insurances, compensation, but the missing element is the understanding of the culture, strategic growth goals, the critical path items that may be barriers to the goals, and desire to be a partner in solutions.

    I feel strongly the overall benefit to the business is to have a Strategic HR Business partner.

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