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HR Role: Strategic Versus Employee Advocate? by Joan Lloyd

Dear Joan:

I am currently in my final year of my degree in Human Resource Management and strategy at the Australian National University, Canberra. I am undertaking tutorial programs for first and second year students and have come across an interesting query that through a lot of reading I am still unsure on how I should attack the problem.

The question posed to me in a nutshell was "Can HR professionals be both strategic business partners as well as employee advocates?" My initial response is, "Yes," however I have researched Ulrich and Brockbanks work and am still unsure with the ever changing HR industry whether it is the correct direction that it is headed. Any insights to this topic will be extremely helpful. Thank you.


This is a timely question, since the HR profession is evolving to become more strategic. It began as more of a clerical function, managing benefits and payroll. As company's needs changed, it became the "Personnel Department," where employees were hired, fired, tested and sometimes trained. Unfortunately, the function sometimes earned the reputation of the "people police."

As companies have become more sophisticated, the function has moved into a more strategic role. In these companies, the leader of the HR function reports to the leader of the organization and is a part of the senior management team. He or she is a key participant in discussions about changes in operations, acquisitions, employee communications, management performance, and any other key topic where people are impacted.

At the same time, the HR executive has a staff that works with all levels of the organization—some are in a very tactical role and others may be in more of a business partner role. For this reason, many HR organizations have a structure that is split. For example, recruiting, salary and benefits and training are areas that require a high degree of specialization. In a large company, you will often see specialized units such as a recruiting team, a salary and benefits team, and so on.

Along with those specialty teams, there is a new HR role emerging. It is sometimes called the "HR business consultant" or "HR business partner." These generalists are each assigned to a business group, such as a manufacturing plant. Usually they report to the HR department, with a "dotted line" reporting relationship to the operations leader they serve. This reporting relationship assures that HR services are consistent across the company, and yet the business unit gets one point of contact who can tap others in the HR department, as needed.

The internal HR business partner acts as a key member of the business unit's leadership team. In the case of the HR generalist who serves a plant, he or she would attend the plant manager's staff meetings; work with all the plant managers, and also with the employees of the plant.

The answer to your question about whether HR should be strategic or employee advocates is not black and white. I think the modern HR department—regardless of each person's particular job—needs to be focused on the wellbeing of the overall organization. They must think like "owners" of the business. As an example, in the past a recruiter would fill a job. Today, a recruiter needs to step back and consider the bigger picture: can the duties be done without filling the job? Is the job description appropriate, given the future needs of the business? Are the candidates the right fit for the culture?

Even the "Employee Relations Specialist" needs to balance every intervention with what's right for the organization. Only advocating for employees would be a mistake. The modern employee relations professional must consider the three legs of the stool for a balanced decision—the employee, the manager, the organization.

So the answer to your question is that any successful person in HR today needs to consider many things when taking any action--business strategy, a healthy culture that creates a win/win environment, the bottom line results, as well as the needs of all employees at all levels. This list is the same list that keeps any good leader up at night.

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