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How do you know you’re an HR business partner?

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Nearly 20 years after the HR business partner role was first popularised in Dave Ulrich’s HR Champions there is still a lot of confusion over the role and the job of the business partner.

So how do you know if you’re working as a business partner?

1. There is a question about whether you’re using a business partnering approach.

There are two critical things part of this – whether you are focused on a business (or other employing organisation) agenda, and also whether you are engaged in partnering which, despite some challenges, makes business partner a perfect name for the role.

The business piece is about focusing on the organisation – making a significant supporting and possibly leading contribution to the business.

A lot of people would suggest the role is about a commercial focus too and it certainly does need to include a financial understanding, and alignment with HR’s contribution to the financial results.

However, I prefer to talk about a business focus as I think we need to see our organisations in holistic, rounded terms – paying attention to the operations and financials without forgetting the people who are behind these things.

And despite the need to be more business focussed, most business partners still deliver the most value by identifying opportunities to add and create value through the people, and the way they are managed, developed and enabled.

The partnering piece is about understanding the business needs and ideally contributing to these objectives based upon what people can do for the business, and then aligning HR activities with these needs so that everything HR does contributes to the success of the business.

Partnering is mainly about relationships and it’s therefore relationship management which forms a major focus for a lot of my consulting and training sessions.

By the way, the major challenge to the term business partner is that partnering is not enough and that something like business player would be a more suitable term.

I certainly agree that a partner needs to be on the field and not just supporting from the sidelines, but I still think partnering is a more accurate description of what the approach involves. The whole HR function then can and should act as business partners in terms of this approach.

2. There is a question about whether you are working in a more specific business partnering role.

This second question is a more difficult one to answer, mainly because there are so many types of business partner (a good thing!).

In addition to demonstrating that you are working in a business partnering approach, there are three key criteria, which make it more likely that you are a true business partner and not just an HR generalist with a business focus and a partnering approach:

a. You’re focusing on a business division rather than a location within a business.

A generalist will typically be focused on all of the divisions of a business at a particular location. This doesn’t stop them from understanding the overall business, or the different business needs of each division, but it does mean it’s harder to understand all of that.

It also means that it’s more difficult to act strategically to contribute to the overall business or a particular division because they’ll need to act together with other HR generalists in other locations to do this.

The easier and potentially bigger opportunities to focus on are the common needs within the area of the business that they focus on – which are the needs of the employees working at their location.

So this structural arrangement is going to tend to pull them down, away from focusing on strategic business needs and towards focusing on more people oriented, operational ones.

That doesn’t need to happen but it does make it more likely.

The difference if you are focused on a division is that you can really get to understand your division’s business needs and concentrate on aligning HR activities with these more specific needs.

You also probably cover multiple locations so it’s less likely that you’ll get dragged down into operational issues at these different locations. Again this structural arrangement doesn’t guarantee that you will do this but it does make things easier for you to do so.

b. You have one key client who is the director of the division.

It makes it easier to partner if you have one key client to develop this relationship with. You can focus on them, just like you do the requirements of the division, getting to know their needs and expectations, and a bit about them as a person too, their life outside the business.

This gives you the opportunity to satisfy your client from a personal as well as business perspective.

c. It’s not just that you are aligned to a director but that this director is aligned towards you.

Partnering takes place in two directions. Even if you’re aligned with only one director if that director is aligned with more than one business partner they’re not going to see either or any of you in the same way.

They need to see you as the individual person they will turn to in order to get strategic advice on HR.

3. There is a question about whether you are in an embedded role (often called, being a business partner) which allows you to focus on partnering as opposed to other things.

It makes it easier to partner if you are working in an HR job which is embedded within a business (a job which is often called ‘business partner’) and have centres of excellence and/or a service centre  – and/or additional legs of the business partnering ‘stool’ (which most often has three legs – business partners, centres of excellence and a service centres – but can have many more) so that you can focus more on the business and your partnering rather than doing or developing HR activities.

HR then becomes the context for what you do but your responsibilities revolve around the business and being a partner (i.e. ensuring your relationship with your business clients is effective and that you are aligning everything the other legs of the HR model provide with what your business needs).

Note also that one of the most interesting changes in partnering at the moment is the development of the business partnering context to include other areas that are not traditionally part of HR (eg. IT and facilities management – so that you’re not just partnering HR but other functions as well).

Where you do have responsibilities for HR activities, and most HR business partners do, it also helps if these are strategic, business-related activities, such as organisation design or development, rather than HR oriented and operational ones (eg. dealing with employee relations cases).

The short version of it

If you’re using a business partnering approach, and also demonstrating the two aspects of the business partner role and job, then it’s pretty definite that you’re acting as a business partner.

However a final, additional test might be that you’re spending at least 50% of your time in business partnering.

A mistake many HR generalists make moving into this role is to spend a vast majority of their time continuing to do HR and a much smaller minority doing partnering.

Actually it needs to be much more balanced.  HR business partners do two things – HR, and business partnering.  There needs to be about the same amount of time devoted to both things.

If you’re only using a business partnering approach, but you’re not acting in the role or job, then it doesn’t mean that you’re not a business partner, but you’ve got things stacked against you so it’s going to be less likely that you’ll be successful, or that you need to work that bit harder to ensure that you will.

The author, Jon Ingham is executive consultant at Strategic Dynamics Consultancy Services, based in the UK. He is also the trainer for HR Academy’s “Strategic HR Business Partnering” course taking place in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. For more details, visit

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