Why the HR business partner is an evolving role

Renowned HR industry analyst Josh Bersin discusses the importance of the HR business partner in modern business.
By: | August 28, 2019

In July, I convened a meeting with senior HR leaders from a range of companies, including Verizon, IBM, P&G, United Health Group, Medidata, BASF and Colgate-Palmolive. The meeting’s sole purpose was to discuss the role of the HR business partner in modern business.

Throughout the day, we discussed how this role has changed over the years and what it looks like now; the traits and skills required; and the kind of training and development activities that would help HR professionals move into the role. As expected, each leader brought different perspectives to the conversation.

In this month’s column, I’ll discuss my view of the HRBP role—past and present. In next month’s column, I’ll share how an evolved role fits into the ongoing transformation of HR and some of the ideas we discussed for training and development.

SHRM describes an HR business partner as follows: “The HR business partner position is responsible for aligning business. objectives with employees and management in designated business units. The position serves as a consultant to management on human resource-related issues. The successful HRBP acts as an employee champion and change agent.”

I view the HR business partner as a “forward-facing” HR consultant embedded in the business. HRBPs should live in the business, understand it thoroughly and work proactively with business leaders on various workforce challenges and strategies. I would prefer to do away with the term “partner” because it continues to reinforce the idea that the individual is just an HR order taker specifically assigned to the business.

I believe the HRBP role exists in some fashion in virtually any company. In small companies, vice presidents of HR or HR managers are essentially business partners. In large global companies, HRBPs are resident in business units, geographies or functions. While they are expected to have extensive knowledge about HR operations, their more important function is as senior advisors, consultants and experts to business leaders. Their allegiance is first to their business leaders, second to HR.

In fact, all involved in the discussion agreed that deep HR domain expertise was not a critical capability of the HRBP role. It was assumed HRBPs know the HR basics and have had prior experience in one or more HR functions. Meeting attendees agreed that mindset, problem-solving capabilities, listening and communication skills, and relationship building are what really drive value in the HRBP role.

I also think it’s critical that high-performing HRBPs are agile in the sense that they can jump into new projects, move to new roles and learn through ongoing experiences.

Following is a more comprehensive list of the individual competencies identified in the working session of our meeting:

  • Intellectual curiosity and empathy. HRBPs must have a desire to learn all aspects of the business and understand its goals. In fact, an HRBP should view attainment of these goals as a critical measure of his/her performance. Additionally, HRBPs must have deep caring for the business workforce and be a proactive force behind workforce strategy.
  • Problem solving. HRBPs must be comfortable working with business leaders and managers to address any workforce challenges or issues. And, rather than viewing problems as “yours,” they should view them as “ours” and be an active part of the solution.
  • Risk taking and courage. HRBPs must be comfortable saying “no” and offering alternative opinions or actions to business leaders. They also must be ready to fail (and have the air cover to allow for failure).
  • Digital acumen. This was one of the most important characteristics identified by meeting attendees, due to the increased availability of people-related data. Today, HRBPs must have the ability to analyze and interpret data, use it to help business leaders better understand workforce needs and incorporate results into workforce strategy and planning.
  • Business-language knowledge. To ensure credibility, HRBPs need to be able to speak “in business.” This comes with knowing the details of the business they are serving and understanding its jargon and acronyms.
  • Networking skills. “Knowing who knows” within the business unit, as well as externally, is hugely important, as is the ability to develop relationships with those who have knowledge and decision-making power.
  • Change-management skills. HRBPs must have the ability to facilitate discussions around change and transformation. Additionally, they must be able to identify in advance where and when change management will be needed and proactively participate in developing plans.
  • Discretion. Several attendees who have served as HRBPs in their careers stressed the importance of this. Business leaders need to trust their HRBPs with sensitive, “insider” information. For instance, a sales manager needs to know a conversation about potentially missing sales goals will be kept confidential.

Personally, I do not believe the HRBP role is going away; rather, it is becoming more important. In next month’s column, I will write about how this role is changing, suggested ways to develop candidates for the role and how strategic deployment of HRBPs can facilitate the transformation of HR organizations.

I also look forward to more discussion on this topic—particularly how technology advancements are impacting the HRBP role—at the upcoming HR Technology Conference and Exposition®.