HR’s Role: Advocate, Agent or Strategist?

“To often, HR’s role in the organization is to come in and shoot the wounded.”

-Kwame S. Salter

Over the past 20 years or so, HR’s role in the organization has gone through seismic changes. Before becoming Human Resources, we were Personnel; before we claimed we were a strategic function, we were satisfied with being administrative; and, before we sought to be respected as “partners in the business”, we were generally viewed as ‘aides- de –camps’ to the business leaders. In fact, in many organizations, the HR function was viewed as the final resort for employees who had plateaued or deemed incapable of making it in the metrics driven world of business. In fact, during interviews HR applicants often cited “getting along with people” as their primary qualification for the job. Granted, prior to technology taking over many of the processing and recordkeeping tasks, the HR function was primarily consumed with what I call ‘administrivia’. According to several experts, HR is still seen by many line managers as “clerical and lower level administrative aides to the organization.”

Yet, HR has always had three major roles in the organization—administrative, operational and strategic. Again, of the three major roles associated with HR, the administrative role was dominant. The operational role consisted of two conflicting realities that begged to be balanced—being an agent of the company and an advocate for the employees. Too often, the role of employee advocate consisted of setting up sham grievance procedures—be they 3 or 5 steps. While these grievance procedures were designed to satisfy ‘due process’, the outcome was often predetermined—the employee would lose. Instead of functioning as an honest broker in the process, the HR professional always knew who ‘buttered his/her bread’—the company. Thus, employees begin to take a cynical view of the process and the HR professional. With the administrative and operational roles being so prominent, there was little interest shown in or time left for addressing the strategic role.

However, in recent years the HR function has attempted to repurpose it’s role as more of a strategic contributor to business success instead of simply the organization’s cat’s paw—concerned, primarily, with administrivia and keeping employees in line. Metrics have replaced morale as the measuring stick for a successful HR function. Today’s HR professional should be more focused on “devising and implementing strategy” rather than policing the employee base. Being strategic does not mean abandoning the administrative and operational roles of HR—it means rebalancing the time, effort and resources of the HR function to achieve business results.

Put another way, HR—if it wants to become a real partner in the business—must be clued in and contribute to the stated business objectives and goals. For example, if the organization has determined that new products and innovation is needed to survive and prosper, the HR function’s strategic role is to attract, select and place employees with the necessary skill sets and qualifications. This may sound simplistic. Yet, so often HR often lags behind the organization’s shift in strategy. As Peter Senge, author of the 5th Discipline, stated, “the only sustainable competitive advantage a organization has is the ability of its employees to learn faster than the competition.” Therefore, the HR function/practitioner must be agile, nimble and responsive. Also, I might add, the HR practitioner must be business savvy, independent thinkers and courageous.

This brings me to my beef with current HR practices. Today, too many HR practitioners are more concerned with pleasing business leaders versus challenging them; with being flunkies instead of being independent thinkers; and, with rubber-stamping bad decisions rather than reversing them. To be strategic means to be fearless when moving into uncharted territory; it means to do what’s best for the business versus what’s best for maintaining a relationship with the business leader you support. HR may have gained a seat at the table—but, also has the potted plant sitting in the middle of the table. The effective HR professional must earn the right to be heard and respected or be relegated to being a silent partner. To avoid the fate of being a silent partner, HR practitioners have to establish themselves by:

  • Improving their business acumen
  • Taking the long view and becoming proactive
  • Sourcing the right type of employees needed execute business strategies
  • Employing the right metrics that drive business success

In regards to metrics, let me share a thought from Albert Einstein, who once observed, Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *