The Human Resources Business Partner Revolution: Mirage or Unfinished Business?

As two long-time HR practitioners, we have spent a great deal of time reflecting on HR’s role in not only supporting an organization or a business, but its role in adding significant value as measured by business metrics.    This is the lens through which we are writing and sharing this series of blog posts.  In exploring this topic we came to the conclusion that the phrase, “business partner” is used too often without a clear understanding of what it means.  We will examine the phenomenon of how a staff function like HR can contribute in a way that transcends merely providing operational and administrative support. We start our series with a brief exploration of how the HRBP concept came into being and how it has evolved in practice. We invite readers to reflect on their own experience and to share experiences related to the subjects we address.


A familiar mantra is that HR needs to be more strategic. We have been hearing this from HR experts and scholars, practitioners, and senior level executives for years and years. Yet, it remains, like the proverbial carrot on a stick urging the donkey (with all due respect to the HR profession) ever forward, but never enjoying the sweet taste of fulfillment.

Much has been written about what being strategic means and how to achieve it. Most would agree that David Ulrich deserves the credit for giving voice to this concept more than 20 years ago in his book, “Human Resource Champions : The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results” he advocated for a shift from transactional and administrative HR activities to a more strategic and business-centric approach. The basic principles for transforming HR included:

  • Creating an organization design with a unified structure that delivers value to the business, not just service;
  • Defining clear roles for HR that are competency-based and used to build and grow a sophisticated set of skills; and,
  • Measuring a company’s performance on HR dimensions with business metrics, or often oversimplified as “speaking the language of the business”

Some have likened this shift to that made by Finance, Marketing, IT and most recently, Data Analytics functions, that has reframed them as disciplines with sophisticated tools and methods that contribute to creating competitive advantage for the organization.

Ulrich’s ideas were seized upon enthusiastically. Scholars, trade and professional associations, and practitioners all jumped on the strategic HR bandwagon. A generation of HR professionals took up the challenge. For HR itself, this signaled a means to assess, codify, and better deploy roles in the administrative, compliance, and advice-giving domains of HR.  The objective has been to achieve a degree of synergy that delivered greater value to the organization than the sum of the individual components.

Along the way, the concept of “business partnership” became oversimplified and singularly applied to a specific role, the Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP), in many cases formerly known as HR Generalist. This new HRBP role was suddenly expected to bear the full burden of “being strategic” by getting close to the business, understanding its needs, and adapting centralized HR programs and practices to bespoke business solutions. In the August 22, 2016 of HR Magazine, Jenny Roper observes:

 “The biggest failure to stay vigilant in truly optimizing the Ulrich model…is that…HR managers are being expected to magically transform into truly strategic, consultative business partners overnight.”

Some believe the original intent of Ulrich’s model was oversimplified through the creation of a role-based solution.  Many others (including ourselves) believe that some in the profession misunderstood that Ulrich’s model was intended to function holistically.  And, some organizations have cherry-picked parts of the model and overspecialized others.  Roper goes on to say:

People too often see the structure part of [Ulrich’s] theories as a ‘solution’ – something which, once implemented, will automatically deliver brilliant HR. As with anything, the reality is of course much more nuanced. As with anything, it’s often not what you do, but how – or rather how intelligently – you do it.”

A third criticism cited by scholars such as John Boudreau of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, is that HR practices, in part due to the over-specialization of the HRBP and Center of Expertise (COE) roles, have become too standardized. Rather than providing solutions specifically tailored to the needs of the business, over-specialization has bred a “vending machine” mentality where standard products and services are doled out based on superficial diagnoses of root causes.

In summary, we believe that: 1) expecting one role -that of the HRBP- to be the sole mechanism to deliver business value; 2) applying the Ulrich model selectively or ineffectively; and, 3) overspecialization leading to the need for better integration of efforts to diagnose and prescribe solutions, have played an outsized role in keeping HR from delivering upon the promise of Ulrich’s vision.

Our next post will pick up with a deeper exploration of the HRBP role.  We will examine what it takes to understand the aims of a given business and apply HR expertise in a way that delivers genuine business value.


About the authors:

Louis Scenti is the Founder and President of Cognoscenti Associates, a consultancy specializing in executive and leadership coaching and organizational consulting. 

Prior to founding Cognoscenti Associates, Louis worked for more than 30 years as a practitioner of leadership development, organization development and talent management for several premier financial services firms, most recently as the Chief Talent Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

He is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Human Capital Management Masters Degree program. 

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

How Do I: Conduct Effective Remote One to One Meetings?

We all know the world is different. Some employees are struggling with the challenges of balancing family and work life in ways they never expected.  This is especially true if your employees have children or others for whom they provide care at home.  Other employees are fine and will be perfectly happy to work remotely for a long time if not forever. Since many of you no longer see your employees on a daily basis, productive and effective one to one discussions are more important than ever.  This post is intended to offer some practical tips to help make your remote discussions more productive.

Start your conversations with attention to your people as individuals.  Don’t jump into whatever business matter is at the top of your mind.  Some of the discussion starters you can use include:

  • How are you?
  • How is your family?
  • Is everyone safe?
  • What, if any, challenges are you facing in doing your job?
  • What is working/what is not?
  • What help do you need from me/ the company?

These discussion starters are intended to establish and/or reinforce the human connection with your employee.  Listen to their answers carefully.  Doing so will give you immediate insights and should guide the rest of your discussion.  For example, if it is clear the employee is stressed out then try to use your time together to discover the root cause.  If it is a business matter, find ways to help.  If there is a personal matter that is causing high levels of stress, encourage the employee to seek some professional help.  If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, encourage him/her to avail themselves of that resource.

Once you have established that personal connection, it’s time to move on to your business agenda.  In more than 30 years of managing remote teams, I have found it is very useful to have a standard agenda for one to one meetings.  Especially in these times, predictability is a good thing.

  • When possible, send an agenda in advance.  Of course, it’s perfectly fine if your employee establishes a regular agenda or that you do so collaboratively.
  • Usually, you should try to keep these discussions to a maximum of 45 minutes.  That’s about as long as anyone can focus without a break.  And that is especially true if there are many or controversial items to discuss.  There will certainly be situations where more time and/or a follow up discussion will be appropriate.  But as a general rule, 45 minutes works well.
  • Use technology.  There are many free or inexpensive video conferencing tools available to us.  If you have a company video capability, use that.  It likely has the security needed to protect your business.  If you are using a commercially available videoconference tool, make sure only those you have invited have the access code to attend your meeting.
  • Make sure you have adequate lighting.  If there is a window behind you, sunlight will wash out your image making it difficult for your employee to read your body language.
  • Try to be in a quiet place to minimize the distractions of ambient noises.  But if your dog or cat wanders into the video, enjoy it. I have encouraged colleagues to let a child sit on their lap and say hello if the toddler is demanding attention.  Be human.  Be real.
  • Allow time to wrap up, summarize agreements, and confirm next steps including the timing of your next one to one.

       This post assumes your employee is a satisfactory or better performer and there are no big business problems. Most leaders have, at times, needed to manage unsatisfactory performance.  Conducting effective remote one to one meetings with an employee who is struggling is another matter that we’ll address in the next post.

To speak with me about managing remote one to ones or other people leadership challenges, reach out to me in any of the following ways

What Do I Do?

My employee refuses to return to work.

This is the first article in a planned “What do I do” series.  Our objective is to provide practical “answers for real world” and to offer other considerations to address a variety of employment-related questions.  This is not legal guidance and readers should consult employment counsel before taking any actions. 

The situation

All our exempt employees accepted a 20% pay reduction due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have been working from their homes.  Our state recognizes the pay reduction as establishing eligibility for proportional unemployment benefits.  We recently reopened our office but the pay adjustments remain in place due to ongoing business impacts.  We are generally following all the CDC safety protocols.  But you know, this is hard and we’re not perfect.

First things first: Talk to Bob

You need to understand his reasons for not returning to the office. Full mutual transparency is key to achieving a satisfactory outcome.  It’s possible that some of Bob’s reasons are or may be legally protected. 

  • In an increasingly common situation, Bob has a family member with an underlying medical condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.    On June 11, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) addressed this matter as it relates to ADA accommodations.  In brief, the EEOC concluded there is no obligation to provide an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) accommodation or leave to an employee who has a family member at high risk of contracting COVID.  The EEOC went on to say that the employer is not required to make an ADA accommodation for teleworking, either.  However, the EEOC did say that employers can consider granting a personal leave.  But employers are not obligated to guarantee a job upon the leave’s expiration.  Depending on the employer’s state, Bob may or may not be eligible for unemployment benefits under these circumstances.
  • If Bob asserts you (as the employer) have not created an adequately safe working environment, he may be protected under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA).
  • The Families First Corona Virus Response Act (FFCRA) contains provisions to provide protected leave for certain conditions such as childcare needs, personal illness, or caring for others who have tested positive for the virus.  Some states have passed legislation defining additional protected conditions.

On the other hand, if Bob refuses to return to work out of a generalized fear of COVID, he is likely not protected. 

Should we terminate Bob’s employment?

It depends.  Some of the questions to consider include:

  • Can I demonstrate a good faith effort to accommodate Bob?
  • What is the business impact if Bob does not come back to the office?
  • How does Bob’s continued absence impact other employees?
  • What are the implications to our employment brand if we let Bob go?
  • How will we respond if Bob files for unemployment benefits?
  • What are others in my industry or locale doing in similar situations?
  • What will we say when other employees ask what happened to Bob?
Document, document, document
  • The details of your request to return to the office
  • Bob’s reasons for refusing to return
  • Your attempts to provide accommodation
  • The company’s efforts to create a safe working environment for all employees

If you are participating in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) you will need to be able to address these points at a minimum.  Also, many states are requiring employers to report refusals to return to work.  Thorough documentation will be critical if Bob seeks protection under any of the possible circumstances described in this post.

Bottom line

Bob is probably not unique.  As a responsible employer and before taking any actions, you have a duty to understand the circumstances that have led to this situation. Beyond fulfilling your legal obligations, society will expect you to be reasonable, empathetic, and accommodating where possible.  However, you still have a business to run and accommodations need to be balanced against the implications and costs of your accommodations.

End Note

This is a quickly evolving area of administrative law so employers are advised to closely monitor new guidance from key agencies such as the US Department of Labor and the EEOC.

Was this article useful?  Would you like to discuss this subject or some other Human Resources challenge you are facing?  Send an email to ken@somershrsolutions.com to schedule a complimentary conversation.

How To Be an Excellent Employee

Among other things, I have led a Business Intelligence team.  Recently, one of my colleagues asked for guidance on how to be an excellent employee.  None of this is rocket science or profound in any way but the question gave me pause and I thought I would share my response.

I think there are six behaviors that help someone achieve recognition as an excellent employee.  They are:

  1. No surprises. It’s a lesson many of us learn the hard way.  But it’s really simple.  If there is a problem, let your manager know before someone else tells her/him.  It’s even better if you have a solution but more on that in a moment.
  2. Abandon any “9:00- 5:00” mentality. Excellent employees do the job – irrespective of how many hours it takes.  Some days the work gets done in fewer than the traditional 8 hour day (Does anyone just work 8 hours/day any more?).  It will take longer other times.  I reward results and not how many hours someone works.
  3. Anticipate the 2nd and 3rd order effects of a decision. If you can’t do that alone, engage someone to help you think it through.  You’ll get a better solution.
  4. Be solution-oriented. It’s OK to come to your manager with a problem.  It’s great if you also come with an idea to solve the problem.
  5. Ask for help. It can be hard to ask for help.  But if we, as leaders,  create an environment where it is OK to say “I need help” then we all benefit.
  6. Be a lifetime learner. I think this is more true than ever in our new Corona reality.  The world will be different.  This is a terrific time to be thinking about what this new world will mean for your career and the capabilities you will need to thrive.
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What do you think?  What behaviors am I overlooking?

  1. Great share Ken. I think if someone can follow above and get proper guidance can become successful. And I firmly…

Are You Ready to Reopen Your Business?

We are in a global defining moment.  While we all hope economies can reopen sometime soon, we have a rare opportunity to think about what we want our piece of the world to look like when that happens.   This article will pose some of the questions businesses of all sizes should be thinking about so that leaders can be prepared.  Not all considerations will apply to every business and most will need to adapt the questions to their unique circumstances.  This is not an exhaustive list.  Rather, the intent is to trigger thoughtful preparations.

Who are my customers and what are their needs now?

No business can survive without their customers.  How have their needs changed in the COVID-19 world?

  • Do I need to adapt my products or services to meet new and different needs?
  • Is now the time to refocus my strategy on my most profitable segments?
  •  Are there opportunities to pivot to new products or services.
  • Has the environment created an opportunity to develop adjacent offerings?
  • How do I know?
  • Am I talking to my customers now to understand what they are thinking?
  • Should you reopen with a big bang or should you phase a reopening?

What do I want my employee experience to be?

Just as a business needs customers, it also needs employees to service those customers.  Your employees are the face of your brand.  What do I need to do for and with my employees?

  • Is my physical workplace safe for employees to re-enter?
  • How do I keep it safe?
  • How do I assure my workforce stays healthy while also respecting medical and other privacy concerns?
  • If social distancing continues to be required for a long time (which is likely at least until we have an effective vaccine that has been widely deployed) what options do I have to keep my workforce (and customers) safe?
  • If some or all of my employees have been working remotely, what has worked well and what has not?
  • Should I continue to have some of workforce continue to work remotely?
  • If I have had to furlough or lay off some of my workforce, who do I bring back and when? Be careful in this decision to avoid inadvertently creating an adverse impact on a protected class of employee.

The answers to these and other questions should help you to evaluate your business model and what, if any changes are appropriate and important as we enter a new normal.

  1. Great share Ken. I think if someone can follow above and get proper guidance can become successful. And I firmly…