Businesses need to stop ignoring HR business partners

HRBPs (HR business partners) feel ignored and ineffective, but they can change this by they understand commercial and operational issues to build credibility

“The uniform is itchy. We keep giving that feedback but no-one pays any attention.” This was the response from one of the bank cashiers I spoke to during a branch visit.

I gave this feedback back at headquarters and one of the HR people actually laughed. This captured the unfortunate yet all too common response I get while feeding back such insights from the front line.

If you have a vested interest in the success of the organisation then this example typifies a moment of truth that either creates or destroys value.

As a stakeholder you hope for several things. Firstly, that your frontline staff smile, engage and ‘care for’ the customer while being in an itchy uniform. The customer also hopes that the person serving them will be well mannered, courteous and efficient.

Second, the shareholder hopes that a positive in-branch interaction means the customer is likely to want to take on additional banking services from them.

The leadership team hopes that the employee is living the values and is aligned to some (costly and likely well thought-through) corporate vision and mission.

The community is also hoping all this works out as they’ve been promised a small slice of profits for important local services.

All of these stakeholder dreams are not actually achievable, mainly because of two things. Firstly, the uniform was procured through a brilliant process that smashed down the supplier who agreed to the bank’s terms but was only able to do so with a poor-quality material.

Secondly, the staff have been giving this feedback through surveys and their HR business partners, who do care, but no-one is listening to them.

While we’re in ‘moment of truth’ stuff I’ll share a couple of my (generalised) truths. HR business partners don’t feel like business partners. They often feel that they want to be seen and involved in a way that’s still aspirational for many. Most feel that they are still seen as personnel and invited to meetings often because their internal clients have to be perceived to be taking them seriously.

But are they involved in really important conversations to do with strategy? Are they consulted with matters of growth? Is it because they are not good enough? The answer to each of these is negative.

My second moment of truth is that others in the meeting often feel that the HR business partner doesn’t add value. Do they involve them? Do they tap into their deep organisational knowledge and know-how? Again the answer is no. And here we have a heated conflict.

The same can be said for L&D, who can get frustrated when they put on lots of courses and programmes and people don’t properly utilise them. The people feel that blockers and poor managers stand in their way of accessing the development they really want.

Truth be told, most people don’t really have a clue what they want anyway.

Thankfully there is a solution to this. There is a fundamental disconnection between ‘functions’. Most people in most functions, especially HR and HRBPs, would find it hard to talk to me about the commercial and operational aspects of the client, team or department(s) they support. But this is the very thing that builds both credibility and trust with the leaders of those teams.

Everyone wants to feel understood, that goes for CEOs as much as for cashiers.

As HR professionals we have to try to understand the operation better than the operation understands itself. That’s always been my goal. Once I’m there, or close to being there, I can engage and most importantly truly empathise with the people in that role.

Practically speaking, taking the time to understand operations should be 20% to 40% of your time if you’re in HR. One to two days a week should be spent deep in the operation learning not just what your customer wants, but what your customer’s customer wants.

If this was more broadly understood then the itchiness of the uniform would not only have been of utmost importance in getting the feedback up the line, but it would have been listened to and acted upon because the messenger was a trusted and true business partner.

Value will have been created not destroyed. Happy staff, happy customer, happy shareholders, happy leaders, and a happy community.

Wayne Clarke is the founding partner of The Global Growth Institute

This piece appeared in the February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk