HR Dilemma: Strategic business partners or employees advocate?


The Human resource function has evolved from the traditional administration function whose primary role was recruitment and payroll processing to a more value-driven and risk reduction function. This is largely attributed to the competitive nature of business whereby the department has had to create a sustainable competitive advantage. How a business organisation creates value in HR functions such as recruitment & selection, employee development, retention, motivation and reduces the risks that come with these functions is what is earning modern HR professionals the power to influence board decisions, giving the profession a strategic role.  As a strategic partner, the professional is required to work toward accomplishing the organisations business plans, goals, and objectives. The only sure way to be successful in this role is to think like a business person.

As employees advocate, HR professionals play this key role because of the knowledge they have about their employees. This advocacy includes; creation of a healthy and safe working environment, implementation of training and development, advising on employees right, dispute mediation, and equal employment rights among others. With these two important roles. How do HR professionals balance executive demands and employee advocacy and stay sane in the process?

  1. Being neutral

The efficiency of the HR department depends on how neutral the department is while dealing with business management and employee population. As tricky as the balancing act is, a neutral approach helps navigate difficult issues between management and employee. How does this profession caught in the middle remain neutral?

  • By educating both parties on the benefits of a neutral hr team. Such benefits include having an ethical workplace where employees are loyal and issues are handled early on before they reach a point of no return.
  • Through training the HR team. Interesting topics to support neutrality range from  conflict management and resolution, emotional intelligence, people management to leadership
  • By having an effective and independent reporting system where workplace injustices such as discrimination, violence, bullying, and harassment are reported. The system should be free from management influence.
  • Minimising the communication gap between management and employee. This helps navigate difficult employee-employer related issues such as pay and performance,

2. Set Expectation

In a quest to please both the management and staff, most inexperienced HR practitioners send contradicting messages that may show support to one side. This ultimately leads to both teams making wrong assumptions about the other and may even cause animosity in the workplace. This can be cleared up by consistent communication. HR personnel should be at the forefront in communicating what employees expect from management and vice versa and what both employees and management should expect from HR and vice versa.

The expectations should be as clear and specific as possible. The three teams should have a clear understanding of why these expectations are important. Case in point, both management and employee can have confidentiality, support, and advocacy as their expectation to the HR team. These should be backed up with good enough reasons for why they came up with these expectations so that the HR personnel can commit to being accountable. Remember, the expectation set should be within an individual’s job description. 

3. Win-Win approach

Lest we forget, HR responsibility is to the whole organisation. Individuals in the department should therefore create a  working environment that benefits both parties. A workplace that balances the management’s need for a productive and profitable business and employees’ needs for job security and satisfaction has the winning strategy in dealing with management and employee issues.

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Smart HR practitioners should realize that by protecting the employee, they also protect the organisation. Employee voice is usually heard in ways such as labour laws, trade unions, civic assemblies, NGOs, human rights activists, and others. By protecting the rights of employees, complying with the law, and advising management on fair business practices, the HR practitioners cushion the organisation from lawsuits, damaged reputation, and financial damages. Conducting HR audit, discussing labour law, and employment issues with an attorney from time to time is highly advised as it is best to be proactive.

4. Confidentiality

Confidentiality is the heart of Human Resources. It is critical to the integrity and competency of the department in any organisation The HR function is a sensitive one because of the nature of information from both employees and management. HR teams manage a spectrum of sensitive information like compensation, the Company’s strategic decisions and actions, performance review, complaints, investigations, Background checks, Health data, etc. and they should ensure they respect the privacy of individual and management. Discretion is always a sure way to inspire trust from both staff and management.

5. Automation

Automating some HR functions frees the personnel from the tedious manual tasks, allowing them to focus on more complex and beneficial tasks such as decision making and strategizing. With the new business environment, Strategic business partners must have the ability to think strategically, analyze data, and have good judgment. Automation also helps reduce bias a positive outcome where employee relations are concerned. HR personnel have been tapping the power of AI to administer employee benefits, forecast talent, conduct exit interviews, and assess employees’ performance. The beauty of these processes is that they are foolproof, removing any form of human bias and helping in future intelligent decision making. Artificial Intelligence acts as an advocate for both the business and the employee.

Will the HR profession be obsolete after automation? The workplace has to be kept human at all costs. People are and will always be the heart of every organisation. Automation does not mean job elimination rather job advancement. Understanding and embracing automation will be the dividing factor between those who advance in the HR field and those left out. Human skills will be needed to run AI. Failure to evolve and adapt will stagnate your career rendering you obsolete. Not all HR functions can be automated. A study by KPMG found five areas that are less vulnerable to automation. They are; employee relations, change management, HR and business strategy, people performance system architecture, and organisational effectiveness.

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