That is a question we would all like the answer to, wouldn’t we? I tip my hat to the person who coined this term. While Dave Ulrich popularized ‘HR Business Partners’ in the 1990s, I am not entirely sure where it first originated. Whoever did come up with the term, without doubt, takes the Oscar for coining the most ambiguous business title till date.
I have never come across a job role with a wider range of interpretation. The variety of job descriptions and definitions for an HR Business Partner can leave one confused. No wonder, it is a term much discussed, debated and written about. Almost every organization holds an independent interpretation of what an HR Business partner does. What is more disturbing is that some organizations do little more than title their regular operational roles as that of HR Business Partners in order to lure talent. The title holds allure and some aspirational value. Thus, given the wide variation, it becomes even more important to parse the role behind the title before accepting an offer.
If I were to describe the role in a single sentence, HR Business Partners are people consultants for the businesses they are aligned to. Every HR Business Partner is tagged to a business or a set of senior leaders. For that population, you can think of an HRBP as the in-house counsel and consultant, except this consultant is truly entrenched within the team. They follow the business, competitor and the talent landscape closely. They engage with leaders to enable them make the right decisions. HRBPs can spot potential disasters, propose new working models and ideas. They will get their hands dirty when required but are not necessarily mired with transactional work. HRBPs interact closely with all wheels in HR and business to ensure smooth driving towards the goal.
The role involves understanding what the teams intend to do, what job should be based out of which location, what is the right talent to hire, how many and at what cost. HRBPs work closely with the talent acquisition team to determine the right role (job families etc.), guide them on compensation when it deviates from the norm and take a call on hiring decisions in exceptional scenarios.
They work with the learning teams to identify gaps, help them determine the right solution and review when necessary.
They work closely with compensation teams to determine the right benefits, act as a feedback loop to them and help individual businesses determine the right investment decision (read pay) for employees.
HRBPs also help leaders decide when it is the right time for an employee to leave the organization.
They actively coach managers and leaders to help them manage people issues on the floor encouraging them to direct employees to the HR operations team for transactional work. For employees, HRBPs appear only when the managerial stream and the operations team has failed to resolve issues.
What is an HR Business Partner is not is a one-stop employee problem solver. Most organizations have an efficient centralized employee resource center that tackles transactional questions. Managers should be able to solve other problems and it is the duty of an HRBP to coach them to be able to do so. When managers face trouble resolving issues, they reach out to HRBPs who then advice on the next course of action. However, HRBPs do engage with employees directly to deep dive on problems, tackle harassment problems at times and to let them know that when all else fails, they are available.
In addition to all of this, HRBPs also work on organization/business wide projects that champion continuous improvement and green field innovation.
When I first started working, I was told that an ideal span of an HRBP to employee is 350. That number is still often quoted, however I am yet to work with such a lean ratio. A more realistic number is upwards of 500. As the pressure to do more with less increases, ratios can get as large as 750-800. Anything above that stretches an HRBP too thin no matter how efficient the individual and the organization.
This long drawn definition is my attempt to help demystify HR’s most confusing role. As I walk you through a few ‘day in my life’s, I hope you get a better picture of the complex world of an HR Business Partner.
P.S: Mum/Dad, if you are reading, I hope this helped.