I do not speak to employees & I am OK

hrEvery time I talk about my definition of an HR Business Partner, I inevitably face the same question. They look at me with disbelief, skepticism, accusation and astonishment as they ask – ‘How can you not interact with employees and yet be effective?’ No matter what my answer, the volley of questions do not stop – ‘How can you design effective interventions without the voice of the employee?’ ‘How do you keep an ear to the ground?’ ‘Who will the employees go to when they need help?’

Before I pour out my explanation here, let me quote the definition that causes the angst. I have said it before but I will say it again – an HR Business Partner is not an employee resource but a manager resource. Think of them as an internal consultant mapped to a particular business. The HRBP helps solve most problems that the business as whole or individual managers face. In addition, they also keep an eye out for lead indicators of potential problems (dogs not barking) and address them proactively. When employee interaction is required to help tackle a particular problem statement, an HRBP will engage with them to draw additional data. Else, the only condition an employee reaches out directly to an HRBP is when something somewhere has gone terribly wrong.

A common question is that if employees cannot reach out to the HR Business Partner, then whom do they go to? Well, for transactional queries, they can reach out to the Central HR function/employee relations/chat bots etc. depending on how these are defined in various organizations. For all other concerns, they speak to their manager. After all, the manager manages these employees. If they are not the first point of contact, then the manager needs coaching. Under the circumstance that the employee is not comfortable speaking to the manager (again, manager needs coaching); they reach out to the skip level and then so on. The exception are harassment cases in which case they write directly to the committee that handles these or yes, can reach out to the HR Business Partner. I see no other circumstance under which an employee would want to speak to the HRBP. Do I never meet employees? Yes, I do. They may spot me at the all-hands or see me walk the floor when I step in to meet their managers. They may even reach out to me for inputs on projects they work on.

However, the above is not a world we are familiar with. We have been taught that an HR professional must stay connected to employees and in our heads that automatically translates into 1:1s and roundtables with employees. In fact, I have witnessed employee surveys that ask, ‘Do you know your HR Business Partner?’ Hence, to tear away from the notion that an HR professional can be effective without face time with employees can be painful. I know many HR professionals think I am off my rocker or am a terrible HR professional. To propose a world where an HRBP does not interact with employees feels like blasphemy. How is it possible to keep an eye on the employee pulse if not via the ‘human touch’?

Can I say that there are other ways? Look at key metrics, look at engagement survey scores, listen to the employees via the managers and you will be just as effective. When I say this, people ask – ‘If managers do everything, then what does an HRBP do?’ I am glad you asked. When the pressures on our time ease, we can finally begin to deliver against the expectations that I outlined above.

I promise you – I am not off my rocker and I believe I am a fairly good HR professional. I do not engage directly with employees and do not need to. Do not worry about me. I am OK. I worry about you.

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