The past eight months have been brutal for layoffs, particularly in the tech sector. Every day brings another announcement, with thousands of workers facing unemployment under the dark cloud of economic uncertainty. Threaded within these announcements are stories of companies behaving badly, whether it’s the methodology of the layoff or leadership taunting the recently unemployed. We can all agree that it’s hard enough to find out you’re losing your job, let alone compound the pain by removing dignity from the process.
While layoffs often appear to come out of the blue, the reality is that, for most organizations, there have been weeks of planning behind the scenes. This is particularly true if the organization falls under the jurisdiction of the WARN Act, Works Councils, collective bargaining agreements, or other legislative and regulatory requirements. Much of the layoff preparatory work falls on the shoulders of the thinly stretched HR function, which is often targeted by headcount reductions itself.
Despite what people might think, HR’s role in the decision-making process can be more administrative than strategic. HR professionals are often brought into the fold only by signing specific non-disclosure agreements, and this usually happens well after the business leaders have made their key choices. HR then typically scrambles to validate that the process was appropriate, often finding a litany of late-stage issues impacting the targeted employees. HR may then cull through performance and potential data, but bad input can certainly lead to equally bad outcomes. And when it’s time to share the difficult realities with your people, managers and leadership often cede accountability out of risk mitigation, electing language within the termination notice such as, “You’ll hear from your HR partner in the next [hours/days] to explain the process and answer any questions.” This is likely to funnel all the angst, shock, anger and outright distress of the displaced directly into the overworked and unstaffed arms of the people function.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Unlike nearly every article that’s been published in this industry, I firmly believe HR business partners (HRBPs) are, in fact, strategic. From my vantage point, the issue at hand has much more to do with capacity than capability. I recently presented to the HR business partnering community at the one of the largest sportswear brands in the world, and here’s what I told them.
HR in the spotlight
Regardless of market, size or geography, the past few years have continued to solidify that everyone needs HR’s help. Rapid organizational shifts within the revolving C-suite, continuous cultural evolutions and movements, internal financial pressures and economic uncertainty, and a fever pitch of geopolitical strife have all amplified the need for someone to step up to provide hope and direction. When combined with a global wellbeing crisis, who better to garner the spotlight than HR leadership? Thus, from stage left enters our CPO/CHRO/EVP, HR to calmly attempt to untangle the hairball and clearly navigate the path forward. This was what we always wanted … right?!?
With the benefit of hindsight, there is a rising groundswell of resentment that perhaps HR was providing air cover merely out of C-suite necessity rather than any form of sustainable design. Exhibit A is the return-to-the-office debate. Almost every organization I know asked its HR team to prepare an exhaustive report on the impacts of remote vs. hybrid vs. office work. Consultants were hired, studies were sanctioned, spreadsheets were hot-keyed and the subsequent recommendations were presented to leadership and the board. The result, which we all know now, was that HR’s good work was ignored because a president or CEO simply had a preference that we all be together on campus. “Maybe three days a week … or four … or perhaps just get back to the office every day or you’re fired.” What a waste of time.
So what is strategic HR business partnering?
Here is a definition for you: “Strategic HR business partnering is a model of human resources management in which HR professionals work closely with business leaders to align the organization’s human capital strategy with its overall business strategy. This approach involves HR professionals taking on a more consultative role, providing insights and expertise on workforce-related issues and helping to drive business performance through the effective management of people. This includes identifying the skills and capabilities required to achieve business goals and working with managers to develop and implement plans to acquire and develop those skills.”
When I shared this definition and asked my audience who authored it, they were unclear which of the typical management consulting firms had published this succinct statement. Instead, ChatGPT can be credited with what is effectively a mash-up of the word jumble from consultants’ published works and websites. Not bad, unless you’re human.
Taking the strategic partner role seriously
Partnerships are funny things—they only work if two parties agree to participate. Both business leaders and HRBPs need to approach the working relationship with good intentions and a willingness to push each other. I’ve counseled many HRBPs who struggle with finding their voice, and the advice I give them is to acknowledge and overtly embrace their worth to the business. Just as an engineering leader is an expert in designing complex systems, an HRBP is an expert in understanding the human element of those systems. Each partner brings a unique and important perspective to the conversation, and when properly calibrated and balanced, everyone thrives.
Readiness for true partnership requires a forensic level of study that embraces both the realities and ambitions of that organizational unit. One must be both interested and interesting. We’ve all been to the backyard barbeque or cocktail party where one person talks incessantly about themselves, their interests and their perspectives. The easiest way to pass the time is to feed that narcissistic machine with question after question after question. But during the ride home, I guarantee you will say to your fellow passenger, “ … and I can’t believe they didn’t ask me a single question the entire night.”
Being an insatiably curious strategic advisor requires time, effort and is often uncomfortable. One must have a longer horizon, perform analysis and planning, all while allowing others to do. During times of stress, such as potential reductions in force, it’s natural for HRBPs to retreat to the familiar—the tactical aspects of planning and executing a layoff. Yet this is exactly the time to strategically advise business leaders, leaning into the discomfort to find the best path. Neither party can be expected to know much about the other when each is already doing three jobs. We must be overt about bringing time and energy into these critical conversations.
Creating space for HR to thrive
The role of HR, and of HRBPs specifically, has been evolving for years. As the nature of work changes, HR is challenged to reexamine its place in the ecosystem. Nearly 90% of CEOs want HR to play a more central in their business, yet only 45% believe they are creating conditions where HR can thrive. Perhaps it’s time for HR to create their own conditions for capacity so that this core capability can rise. Source all non-strategic, non-talent-focused work through other groups or third parties to place yourself in an immovable position to anticipate, advise and assist leaders through whatever may come their way.
If you question my premise, start tracking your time. Clock the number of hours each week you’re required to triage the noise and therefore are missing the signal. And then clock it again. And again. Share your results with those who wrote the strategic HRBP job description and ask them what they’re going to do about it. Capacity must be found, or you should take your capability somewhere it’s wanted.