The role of the HR business partner
More companies are employing HR business partners as they try to better align human resources with the needs of the business.

HR business partners work closely with an organisation's senior managers to in order to develop an HR agenda that closely supports the overall aims of the organisation. Often they work within individual business units rather than with the group HR function.

The HR business partner is part of a shift in the HR function over the past few years, away from a remote centralised department that policed the bureaucracy and issued instructions, to a function that is more focussed on meeting the needs of the business itself.

“The business partner’s role is to put in place the policies and practices of the people of the organization that are aligned to the operational needs of the business or, if there’s a big strategic change, then the people management processes to move people from doing things one way to whatever the new form of implementation is,” says Peter Wilson, National President of the Australian Human Resources Institute.

“That’s really a customer-centric approach. Basically, HR serves the business so they need to be at the coalface.”

Wilson, who as an HR executive has implemented HR business partner functions in at Amcor and ANZ Bank, says an effective HR business partner should have three attributes.

Firstly, they need the core HR skills, including leadership, development, succession planning, remuneration, performance, employee relations, the law governing people in the workplace, and health and safety.

Secondly, they need to be very good communicators and assessors. They are the voice of the boss to the workers and so need to be able to get that message out and also to assess its reception. “They need to be able to monitor the way the message from the boss is being received, what other issues people are concerned about, and feeding that back to the boss to either vary or amend the communication or do something differently,” Wilson says.

Finally, they need an understanding of business and perhaps a business qualification, such as an MBA. Wilson says it is less common for the HR function to be automatically given an annual budget allocation. Instead, HR groups need to contest for the resources they have available to them. They have to be able to develop business cases for what they intend to do and demonstrate the benefit in an analytical fashion.

Hence, they have to understand business in general as well as their own particular business unit in order to be effective and get funding for HR.

“The HR business partner is someone that’s serving a business leader and has to deliver service against their expectations of what they want out of their people in the workplace or they’re not of value and they need to do something else,” Wilson says.

Evaluating what the business needs

HR business partners should also be able to do a better job of recruiting workers who are aligned to their business unit’s need.

“They’re now working in the middle of the business, they’re talking to the boss who’s running whatever division it is, and they can understand this is not just an off-the-shelf job description,” Wilson says. “This job needs this in this context and that’s in the position description so you’re getting a better probability around matching someone against what the job actually is on site. And so, in the whole recruitment process you’re more focused about the relevance and what the person you’re after should be.”

Renee Robson, who until recently was one of four HR business partners at YMCA Victoria, says one advantage of the HR business partner is that people in the business have one point of contact who knows their part of the business very well.

“Being able to build relationships with those people and having someone that you’ve got a good rapport with that you know you can talk to is really critical,” says Robson, who is still with YMCA Victoria, as Learning and Organisational Development Manager.

Business units don’t want an HR person who will recite the group’s HR policy back to them. Instead they want an HR business partner who will work with them on solving problems and solutions.

“The biggest thing is being able to learn,” says Robson. “The people that are really, really relevant in a partner role are almost always the ones who are constantly evaluating what the business needs and also what we should be doing differently.”

Robson says she loved her role as an HR business partner, in YMCA Victoria’s recreational sector, managing gyms and pool facilities. “It was entirely new to me. And it was a really great way to know the drivers of the organization,” she says.

HR business partners also have a role in sharing what they have learned with the wider HR group, being able to come back and ask what can we be doing differently overall?